Based on H.G. Wells’ 1897 novel titled The Invisible Man, the 2020 film of the same name adopts the general premise of the early sci-fi novel and turns it into a timely commentary on abusive relationships. The original novel follows a scientist that discovers the secret to invisibility and successfully turns himself invisible, subsequently committing a series of crimes (Encyclopaedia Britannica). The film blends elements of the horror genre with science fiction to create a creepy rendition wherein protagonist Cecilia Kass (Elisabeth Moss) is being tormented by her abusive ex-boyfriend Adrian Griffin (Oliver Jackson-Cohen) in a suit of invisibility. The true horror of the film lies in the trauma that he has inflicted on her and continues to facilitate even after he’s supposedly dead. Rather than the typical expectation of malevolent supernatural forces at work, Leigh Whannell subverts the genre by making the antagonistic force an abusive ex-boyfriend. This makes for a more frightening horror in light of the reality of such situations, sans invisible suits of course. It takes the fear and horror of domestic violence and the psychological repercussions and emulates it in a horror film setting.
Several horror movies in the past have utilized a female protagonist, with some of these films focusing more specifically on the fears that come with being a woman like Rosemary’s Baby and The Stepford Wives. The Invisible Man follows in this course, focusing on a woman being continuously tormented by her abuser and underpinning the very real and palpable fear that comes with it. While this isn’t an issue and fear restricted to solely women, the film chooses a female perspective to look at the horror of domestic abuse. Whannell comments on making such a relevant adaptation and using the female perspective by saying:
"... you just hear a lot of stories about women who have escaped from a relationship, but they can’t shake it off. Every time they walk to their car, they’re waiting for something to happen... getting out of a bad relationship is only the first step. It’s keeping away from that person, and sometimes I don’t feel like the legal system is quick on its feet to protect women from these things. So, I just wanted to kind of ramp that up and do what a lot of horror movies do so well, which is just Trojan horse these issues in there, in the context of a suspenseful, entertaining movie."
The Importance of Empty Space
Much of the horror generated by The Invisible Man comes from the film's use of physical space to heighten anxiety and fear. The film utilizes the camera to emphasize empty space throughout the entire film, pointing to the presence of an invisible antagonist, Adrian, ready to torment our protagonist, Cecilia. This accompanied with long shots effectively creates suspense and brings attention to the dangers of the empty physical space surrounding Cecilia. Whannell also employs tracking shots that follow an empty frame, indicating the movement of Adrian. By manipulating the empty spaces in such a way he plays on the idea that people fear more what they can't see (University of Turku).
Taking tropes typically found in paranormal films, like things moving on their own, Whannell subverts genre expectations by making the presence of malice rooted in Cecilia's abusive ex-boyfriend rather than some ghost or otherworldly figure. The monster attacking her is one she's very familiar with, which only increases her anxiety because she knows what he's capable of. In doing so, the film emphasizes the real-world terror of leaving an abusive relationship rather than relying on fiction. The fact that the main horror of the film is built around the implication of Adrian's presence shows how menacing of a character he really is.
The Importance of Setting
The setting of the film has an important role in reflecting the mental state of our protagonist. One of the most important settings is Adrian's house, where we are first introduced to our characters. Adrian's house is a huge, modern structure perched near a cliffside that drops into a turbulent ocean on one side, and surrounded by sprawling fields and forests on the other. The house is also surrounded by looming grey fences that keep Cecilia in. The overall portrayal of the house evokes feelings of loneliness and isolation that's reflective of Cecilia's mental state as a result of her relationship. Cecilia is not only trapped in this relationship by her abuser but also by the physical setting of the house that both aim to keep her in and away from everyone she loves, which Whannell aptly describes as a "beautiful prison" (Whannell). Thus, the imposing structure of the house is representative of Adrian's abuse and control while the rocky waves below represents Cecilia's inner turmoil and fervor to escape.
When Cecilia revisits Adrian's house during the day, the isolation and sterility is further emphasized. With all the furniture covered in plastic and sheets, they give off a ghastly presence that's symbolic of bad memories within the house and the continual presence of Adrian in her life.
Another important setting in the film is the mental ward in which Cecilia is placed in after being framed for killing her sister. She's physically restrained and tranquilized, once again trapped in another sort of prison as a result of Adrian's actions. The setting of the house and ward continually reinforce the isolation and mental imprisonment that Adrian is inflicting upon her as he drives her loved ones away and continues to torment her. This is succinctly captured when Cecilia says:
“This is what he wants. This is what he used to do when we were together. He wants you to think that I did it. This is what he does. He tries to isolate me, and he tries to get me alone.”
Cecilia's dialogue displays Adrian's pattern of abuse and manipulation. He is ceaseless in his abuse and goes to extremes to get her back in his clutches, angered by the fact that she left him.
The Importance of Weather
The weather is also a significant indicator of Cecilia's emotions and helps to highlight the tone of important scenes. Perhaps the most important role of the weather is seen after Tom leaves Cecilia in the mental ward after revealing that he's known all along about Adrian's actions. After this the scene cuts to a weather report that forecasts a big storm coming, foreshadowing the climax of the film. When the storm arrives the action of the film starts to escalate. The storm is symbolic of Cecilia undermining Adrian's manipulation to escape from the mental ward and hunting him down in turn, adding to the drama of the ensuing action.
Weather is also important in the final scene where Cecilia goes to have dinner with Adrian at his house, where she notes that it's cold. The cold weather represents the distance between them and Cecilia's transformation as she realizes that he'll never be held accountable for his actions and will never admit that he's guilty, beckoning her to take her justice into her own hands as she kills him.
The Importance of Sound
Along with the use of empty space to enhance fear, The Invisible Man uses minimal sound to increase suspense. Many scenes in the film are quiet, with attention given to the smallest of sounds such as footsteps and breathing to project the anxiety and fear that Cecilia experiences onto the audience.
For instance, in the opening scene where Cecilia tries to escape from Adrian's house, the diegetic sound is minimal. Only the waves crashing in the background can be heard as Cecilia has to quietly and stealthily escape. The lack of sound in this scene and Cecilia's overwhelming caution in her actions creates tension and cleverly tells the audience to fear Adrian without overtly saying so. His mere presence and Cecilia walking on eggshells is enough for us to understand their relationship.
Power Dynamics & Control
Much of the emotional abuse that Adrian inflicts on Cecilia can be seen through the power dynamic that he has instituted in their relationship. He wants complete control over her and enjoys having such power. He isolates her from her family and friends so that he's the only one in her life. In describing the abuse she experienced while with Adrian, Cecilia says:
“He was in complete control of everything, you know? Just… including me. He controlled how I looked and… what I wore and what I ate. And… then it was controlling when I left the house… what I said. And eventually… what I thought. And if… if he didn’t like what he assumed I was thinking… h-he… he would [hit her] amongst other things.”
Thus, when Cecilia leaves him, Adrian views it as her transgressing her place and a slight against him. He doesn't like to lose control or for someone to say no to him, which causes him to stage his own death to get revenge and try to regain that control over her. Adrian's brother Tom puts it aptly when he says:
“He needs you because you don’t need him. No one’s ever left him before.”
Adrian can't handle someone undermining his power and control. As Cecilia points out, he's a "narcissist sociopath" who can buy people with his money and power. He manipulates everyone around him, including Cecilia and those around her and his own brother.
The Symbolic Knife
The knife is a recurring symbol throughout the film. It's a phallic object that represents Adrian's power and control over Cecilia. The knife is first seen when he steals it from the kitchen, only for Cecilia to find it later in the attic. The knife is also used to kill Cecilia's sister, Emily, with Cecilia subsequently being blamed for her murder and placed in a mental institution. Thus, the knife is not only a passive symbol but plays an active role in the narrative of the film to further abuse and oppress Cecilia. However, in the final scene where Cecilia joins Adrian for dinner, she takes back this symbol of power to give Adrian a taste of his own medicine. She uses the invisible suit to kill him, making it look like a suicide as he slits his throat. The fact that she uses the knife shows that she has finally toppled him and gained her freedom from his power and control while also avenging her sister's death, who was killed in the same way.
One of the main ways that The Invisible Man depicts the abuse Cecilia endures is through its representation of gaslighting. Whannell has even commented in an interview saying that the film is a "perfect metaphor for gaslighting" (Whannell). Gaslighting is defined as "a specific type of manipulation where the manipulator is trying to get someone else (or a group of people) to question their own reality, memory or perceptions" (DiGiulio). Throughout the film Cecilia is continuously being tortured by her ex-boyfriend but no one around her believes her because he's supposedly dead. They instead believe that she's being paranoid or still being haunted by his memory, but the audience knows that she's telling the truth as we witness it. Adrian wants her to feel like she's crazy:
“This is what he does. He makes me feel like I’m the crazy one.” -Cecilia Kass
When everything is seemingly resolved at the end and Adrian has framed his brother for everything that happened and has gotten off as innocent, he once again gaslights Cecilia by trying to convince her that he had no part in the events of the film:
“I know that you feel like you’re going insane sometimes. But I’m the only one who can help you. Remember? Because I know you better than anyone else in the world. I mean... that shouldn’t come as a… surprise.” -Adrian Griffin
He doesn't cease his gaslighting. After abusing her in their relationship and throughout the whole movie, he puts on the "nice guy" persona at the end to try to seem innocent and as if he were a victim in this narrative as well. However, Cecilia sees right through his facade even if no one else does and takes action into her own hands.