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LONG READ: A horror film about the omnipresence of abuse

The Invisible Man explores how the clandestine and insidious nature of abuse may make victims seem crazy even when they ask for help and call out their abusers
Thu, Nov 19, 2020

Elisabeth Moss gives an emotive and powerful performance in The Invisible Man


By the time you finish reading this, another woman would have been murdered in South Africa. By the time you take a lunch break, another woman would have been murdered. The crime statistics in 2017/18 estimated that around 2,930 women were murdered, the equivalent of a murder every three hours. So, by the time you read this, there would have been yet another surge.

As we approach the annual Global 16 Days of Activism Campaign – the longest running campaign targeted at ending violence against women – it's necessary to pause and reflect on the year that was. There is something that will always be harrowing and specific when September 2019 in this country comes to mind. I am sure you can still remember where you were, what you were doing and more importantly, how helpless you felt. It is a very particular source of defeat.

Uyinene Mrwetyana was doing something so normal when her life was taken from her. The 19-year-old student was brutally raped and murdered by a Post Office worker while collecting a parcel, and it sparked mass outrage.

The #AmINext? movement followed in response, as women took to social media to demand answers and out their abusers. That week, we looked around us and the realisation dawned all over again that it is always the people closest to us who were perpetrators. I can still see the names of our peers, lovers and colleagues being outed. What's scarier is that there are thousands I haven't seen and thousands more to follow.

I am taken back to a movie I watched recently that captures the real-life horror that is the omnipresence of abuse. It is this crippling fear that the most harmful people to us tend to be the ones who operate out in the open. Between her roles in The Handmaid's Tale, Shirley and Jordan Peele's Us, to name a few, Elisabeth Moss is someone I have come to respect for perfecting the tired and terrified facial expression – and when you see it, you believe her every time.

It is almost as though it comes naturally to her, this ability to clearly express the turbulent around her. This is one of her most effective weapons as an actress. Her role in the critically acclaimed The Invisible Man spans just over two hours of runtime (and running time) to back that.

The movie is a modern take on the novel of the same name by none other than the father of science fiction, H.G. Wells. Often dubbed the horror movie of the year, The Invisible Man takes us on a wild ride of the quintessential monster: a deranged scientist who becomes unhinged and uses his tools to become invisible and haunt his ex who has escaped from his controlling and abusive hold.

The mainstream success of the film can be attributed to director Leigh Whannell's return to the centre stage of the genre. Known for his roles in the Saw movies as well as many other projects over the past two decades as a director, writer and actor (Insidious, Dead Silence, The Bye Bye Man), Whannell captured the essence of directing, camera work and the excellent marriage between the empty spaces and the soundtrack to make this story come to life.

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Honing in on the horror aspects of the story, the modern adaptation is inventive and imaginative; even at points where the implementation feels rushed, Moss's performance more than makes up for with. What she does is give us a world class performance on what Whannell admits was a B-List budget that he created miracles with.

The first five minutes of the film are so important because they tells us everything we need to know about the main character and the monster she is married to, based on how we are introduced to Cecilia (Moss). What I really appreciate about this is that it does not begin with a back story or contextualise the abuse that leads to the point at which we meet her.

In the opening scene, she wakes up and based on the lighting, how the camera follows her, her body language and how she proceeds to move through and out of the house in attempts to get the hell out of there, we are immediately afraid of the man she left laying in bed to facilitate her elaborate escape plan.

The choice to write this scene in this manner is rooted in what the audience would perceive about both Cecilia as a victim and just how much her partner Adrian Griffin makes her blood run cold. Positioning the characters like this with little to no dialogue in those first few minutes is so powerful because her reaction sets the tone for how terrifying the man is.

Adrian (played by Oliver Jackson-Cohen) is a ground-breaking scientist in the field of optics. He works from what feels like a very cold and eerie modern mansion that we get a glimpse of as she walks us through parts of it, as well as a few seconds of his lab before she makes her escape which has us on edge.

One of the clever choices of the direction throughout is that we learn the most about her relationship; not through flashbacks or seeing the couple together, but through Cecilia's expressions, demeanour, paranoia and fear.

Following her escape, she is housebound with her friend James (Aldis Hodge) and his daughter Sydney (Storm Reid) who are constantly reassuring her that she is safe and sanity can be restored through simple acts like going outside to collect the mail.

Shortly after, a visit from her sister arrives with the news that Adrian is dead. He is reported to have committed suicide after Cecilia left him and Tom (Michael Dorman), Adrian's attorney and brother, informs her that she has cashed out and so life slowly begins to return to normal for her... until it doesn't. The use of all the empty spaces and open doors throughout these plot progressions cause our brains to wonder what might be lurking, adding to the suspense of when to expect the invisible man to show up.

Everything comes at you fast in this movie and that tool is so effective in convincing us that she is right – that man is alive. The rapid pace at which things escalate and tricks are played on her, positions our female lead as someone who moves from vulnerability to, 'I will do everything in my power to prove to you that I am not wrong'.

Whannell directs the film in a way in which her world physically begins to crumble over someone nobody except her can see, as opposed to focusing on the psychological trauma of the whole ordeal. This was a commentary on the very real nature of abuse and its victims. It is a commentary on the fact that it is alleged until it happens to or around you and that she is the one who is crazy, until The Invisible Man comes to get you.