Maybe it was inevitable: critics praising Leigh Whannell's The Invisible Man as a horror film for the #MeToo era. It's a neat and tidy description, but one that—perhaps unwittingly—reduces our reckoning with sexual abusers to a modern invention, and implies that Whannell's film is merely part of a current trend; a cultural preoccupation, a fad, something that burns fast and bright but ultimately fades. #MeToo was around before Harvey Weinstein, and given the results of his recent trial—guilty on two felony counts, but acquitted of the two most serious charges—it isn't leaving the cultural lexicon anytime soon. The story The Invisible Man presents, the themes it explores and its salient metaphors, are viscerally effective—not because of some current obsession with prolific sexual abuse and harassment, but because these experiences are, unfortunately, timeless. And that timeless quality is one of the hallmarks of a good horror story.
We meet Cecilia Kass (Elisabeth Moss) in the middle of the night, as she sneaks out of bed while her boyfriend sleeps, checking to make sure the Diazepam she drugged him with is doing its job. She tiptoes through this large, glass box of a house—the dominion of the controlling man who owns it, the floor-to-ceiling windows and vast, empty spaces serving as the ideal perch for an all-seeing, all-knowing narcissist who thinks himself God. On its own, this 10-minute opening scene is one of the most intense horror films committed to screen: Cecilia, retrieving a go-bag from its hiding place in the closet; the camera panning down the opposite hall, knowing she (and we) expect the sleeping man to appear awake and enraged at any moment; her last minute choice to free the pet dog, Zeus, from the electric dog collar that's made him a prisoner, too; the car alarm going off and her desperate, crazed flee down a hill and over the cement wall to escape into her sister's car, just as the man slams into the passenger-side window. As the car frees itself from his grasp and they drive off into the night, Cecilia doesn't sigh relief or laugh manically, violently like Sally at the end of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre.
As someone who's surived an abusive relationship might tell you, the terror doesn't end there. And so it doesn't end here, either. Following her harrowing midnight escape, Cecilia has taken refuge with her friend James (Aldis Hodge), a policeman who lives alone with his teen daughter, Sydney (Storm Reid). It's been two weeks, and Cecilia can barely manage leaving the house; it's only now that she can make it down the driveway and to the mailbox on her own, but just barely. James is patient and kind, even as Emily (Harriet Dyer), tests her sister Cecilia's resolve. It isn't long before Emily visits with news that Cecilia's boyfriend, Adrian Griffin (Oliver Jackson-Cohen), has been found dead of an apparent suicide. Cecilia understandably struggles to believe it until she meets with Adrian's brother and lawyer, Tom (Michael Dorman), who reveals that she's inherited $5 million, to be dispersed in monthly increments of $100,000—as long as Cecilia avoids committing a criminal act.
In the days that follow, and just as Cecilia begins to embrace her newfound freedom, increasingly strange things occur: There's a small fire; Cecilia feels like she's being watched, and believes she struggled with an unseen presence in the middle of the night; and on her first job interview post-breakup, Cecilia discovers important documents missing from the briefcase where she (deliberately, carefully) placed them; she passes out, only to discover soon after that there was a large amount of Diazepam in her system—pills she didn't take. It becomes clear (to us, to Cecilia) that Adrian, a leading mind in the field of optics, has come up with a way to make himself invisible so he can punish her for leaving him. Unfortunately, no one else believes Cecilia; the years of abuse and trauma have done more than make her a victim: it's rendered her incapable of reason and rationality, of taking care of herself. Her fractured mind is unreliable and thus she becomes a victim twice-over.
The Invisible Man takes Cecilia's abuse and her apparent post-traumatic stress and makes it literal in the form of her eponymous stalker. It's almost as if Whannell reverse-engineered the metaphor, recontextualizing a boogeyman as something tangibly terrifying and real. To her friends and loved ones, Cecilia is merely haunted in the abstract by her experience, unable to let go and move on, but to the viewer and Cecilia herself, she is still being tormented and abused, still made to believe she's the crazy one despite all evidence to the contrary. It's gaslighting, of course, but rarely has it been so masterfully depicted on screen. Whannell perfectly captures the suffocating feeling of intimate oppression, the texture of a masculine hand gripped around a throat, the visceral, seemingly inescapable dread that becomes the survivor's shadow. Another metaphor crystallizes in the third act, particularly when Adrian brutally attacks James—the idea that white male privilege is itself invisible, and invisibility—untouchability—is the unseen super-power of white male privilege. Adrian's abuses—emotional, physical, sexual—went unnoticed and even willfully ignored for years. He was able to commit these acts for the same reason he was never held accountable for them, let alone had his abuses acknowledged: he's a man. Even worse: he's a man with money.
Just as Whannell expertly explores these ideas, so too does Moss capture and reflect the full range of Cecilia's emotional journey, from frightened, fragile victim to adrenaline-fueled escapes and confrontations, and, eventually, the psychologically gutted and drained woman (wrongfully) committed to a mental institution for murder. There are moments in The Invisible Man, as in Queen of Earth or The Handmaid's Tale, when an end-of-the-rope Moss—stripped bare, her hair hanging in strings around her exhausted, tormented face—turns her eyes upward, the camera hovering from slightly above, framing her as if in violent prayer to an ambivalent god. This is when the unhinging begins—not before, when she screamed and kicked and scratched, but now, when it's quiet and calm. That is when Moss becomes most deadly. This is when The Invisible Man leaves the real world and all its laborious, drawn-out reckonings behind, and a cathartic, vengeful reckoning begins. There will be blood.
To say The Invisible Man is satisfying seems inadequate; there's something glorious about the film's conclusion, which may feel to some men every bit as horrific as the implications of Florence Pugh's facial expression in the final shot of Midsommar. Sorry to those men.