The Invisible Man’s Feminist Wish Fulfillment Feels Hollow

The opening scene of The Invisible Man, a genderswapped-perspective update of H.G. Wells’ story and Universal’s monster movie, is one of Elisabeth Moss’ finest performances, and she doesn’t even say a word. In the middle of the night, Cecilia opens her eyes and slips out of the bed she shares with her abusive boyfriend Adrian (Oliver Jackson-Cohen). Moving quietly even though she has drugged him as a precaution, Cee silently pads through their ultra-modern, hyper-surveilled beachside mansion, withdrawing the go bag she’s stashed away, filled with extra clothes, cash, and birth control. Despite a few heart-stopping noises that threaten to give her away, she manages to dodge the security cameras and make it out of their home and to the road, where her sister is waiting at 3:45 a.m. to whisk her away from her imprisonment. In the first few minutes, Cecilia is the one who’s invisible.

But as Leigh Whannell’s (Saw) adaptation progresses, the film gradually trades that subtlety for increasingly on-the-nose horror beats, culminating in an ending that is supposed to feel brutally satisfying, but instead undermines the entire reasoning driving this new take on the story.

[Full spoilers for The Invisible Man follow]

Typical for a Blumhouse production, this retelling considers a different perspective that still engages with the Invisible Man and his powers, but from the viewpoint of someone who suffers at his hands. After Cecilia flees her life with Adrian, he supposedly kills himself and inexplicably leaves her $5 million—seemingly both letting her go and asserting control over her and her existence. But just as Cee is beginning to relax into some measure of freedom, strange occurrences lead her to believe that not only is Adrian not dead, but he has found a way to become invisible and continue to invade her life—only this time in ways that no one else can see. The Invisible Man is a contemporary update that, before the missteps that tarnish the latter half of the film, smartly and sensitively engages with issues of domestic violence.

That first scene feels so familiar because it reflects the kind of hypothetical (and not-so-hypothetical) conversations that women either participate in or at least observe online and in real life. Just a few weeks ago, a viral Facebook post detailing step-by-step instructions for planning to escape an abusive partner resurfaced, because clearly someone needed it and reshared it on social media for others who might as well. The detailed level of planning—hiding a new bank card in the abuser’s drawer, as they wouldn’t think to look there; warning coworkers and managers in case your ex-partner comes looking for you—reflects Cecilia’s intensive long-game accounting for every possible obstacle to her escape.

Except that she didn’t anticipate that her ex would build an invisible suit in order to stalk her.

The Invisible Man review wish fulfillment ending Elisabeth Moss domestic violence

Screenshot: Universal Pictures

Whannell shoots Adrian’s first few invasions to more resemble a typical haunting film. Cee chops up breakfast; when she steps away from the kitchen, her knife slips off the counter, as if into the hand of a ghost. While she sleeps, the comforter is sloooowly dragged off her like something out of Paranormal Activity. But what makes these moments so chilling is that they exist within the larger context of extremely tense long shots. Even when Cecilia isn’t paying attention, the camera—the audience’s eye—lingers agonizingly over a seemingly still scene, daring the viewer not to blink lest they miss the tiny moment that betrays Adrian’s presence.

Sometimes nothing happens; there’s no reward for our unceasing staring at negative space, save for our own reassurance that we didn’t see anything. Cee spends one excruciating night holed up in a corner of her bedroom, barricaded by a carpet of coffee grounds to track Adrian’s footprints. He might be watching her from the doorway, or he might not be there; regardless, she begs to know, “Why me?” This monologue is the highlight of this portion of the film, both for building more of a case against Cecilia’s sanity and because, again, it reflects what victims of intimate partner violence must wonder: What makes them so special, to be the object of rage and obsession? In Cee’s case, she’s not of Adrian’s world; she poses no threat to his tech career. He could have anyone, she reasons, so why waste time and energy on her and not just let her live her life away from his control?

The thing is, Adrian didn’t build the suit after Cecilia left. When she’s stealing through the garage at the start, she passes three or four of the suits hung up in the corner, but has no time to give them more than a curious glance.

In other tellings, the Invisible Man might be a little… unstable even when he’s just an average guy. Equal parts brilliant and arrogant, sure, to have figured out this process and believe that he can survive it. But it’s only after he becomes invisible, when he experiences the freedom and access of moving through the world without constraint, that he also begins to disregard social mores; that along with his layers of skin and bone, his inhibitions also fall away. Even the Slayer gives in to this tantalizing power, however briefly, in the Buffy episode “Gone.” It’s a trope that is meant to be intensely relatable to the viewer, to make the Invisible Man the tiniest bit sympathetic…at least until he escalates in his invasions and violence.

The Invisible Man review wish fulfillment ending Elisabeth Moss domestic violence

Screenshot: Universal Pictures

But here, it isn’t the suit that makes Adrian a monster. As Cee haltingly explains to her sister Emily (Harriet Dyer) and her cop friend James (Aldis Hodge), Adrian was brilliant, yes—while the movie doesn’t go into specifics, he’s meant to be perceived as a prosperous tech entrepreneur who somehow deals in “optics” in the form of home surveillance and security systems. His business success comes from being able to reach into his consumers’ brains and seize on their greatest fears, then charge them handsomely for protection. Those control-freak tendencies extended to his relationships: He carefully supervised what Cecilia ate, what she wore, who she spoke to and what she said. Emily was shocked when she picked Cecilia up because she never guessed at what lurked in the shadows of her sister’s idyllic life, so thoroughly had Adrian cut her off from her support systems. While Cecilia alludes to Adrian hitting her when she didn’t follow his every rule, what’s left unsaid is that his violence was likely more sexual, especially with his insistence on wanting a baby to tie her to him forever. (She reassures her sister that she was sneaking birth control to keep that fate away.) The methods of control he exerted over her, like so much abuse, would have been invisible to outsiders or casual observers.

Adrian always had the suit ready as a contingency plan. He doesn’t change his behaviors once he puts it on; it simply makes it that much easier for him to fray whatever tentative bonds Cecilia has made in the weeks since her escape: sabotage a job interview; write Emily an email from Cecilia’s laptop accusing Emily of suffocating her; hit James’ daughter Sydney (Storm Reid) to make Cee look unhinged. Adrian always had the power to control her—but this time, he ensures that she would have no evidence, no way of explaining what’s being done to her.

It’s unclear how much Cee knew of Adrian’s experiments; though he kept her trapped in his home, if he controlled her thinking to the extent she described, then he likely didn’t let her out of his sight long enough to poke around his Tony Stark-esque lab. Yet she arrives at the conclusion that “he must have found some way to make himself invisible” shockingly early in the movie—so quickly that it serves to alienate her both from James and Emily, as well as even the audience to some extent. Maybe we’re too conditioned by formulaic movies that we expect Cecilia to ponder and disregard multiple explanations before hitting on the right one; perhaps we are meant to underestimate her, like everyone in her life. At any rate, she confirms her suspicions soon enough (but only to herself, on her own) when she returns to Adrian’s home and confronts the source of this particular torture.

The Invisible Man review wish fulfillment ending Elisabeth Moss domestic violence

Screenshot: Universal Pictures

When Cee discovers the suit, hanging in Adrian’s garage and blinking its infinite camera eyes at her, it’s like a moment out of a superhero movie: The layperson has laid their eyes on the source of the villain’s power. Here is her chance to level the playing field. There’s also a deeper gut yearning to see a woman, any woman, put on the suit. Conditioned as we are by small tastes of Pepper Potts, first in a random Iron Man suit (Iron Man 3) and then in her customized Rescue suit (Avengers: Endgame), and the Wasp, only glimpsing her prototype suit in a post-credits scene (Ant-Man) before finally donning it (Ant-Man and the Wasp), there is the desire for a woman to take on that power without hesitation.

Yet The Invisible Man teases us just the same. When Cee hears Adrian coming, she stashes the suit in the same spot she’d kept her go bag and hides in the closet like any other woman in a horror movie. Pressed up against the wall, trying not to breathe, she watches his invisible footprints until she can run past him.

This second escape marks the turning point of the film, when The Invisible Man shifts from psychological thriller to unnecessarily gory horror. Adrian follows Cecilia to dinner with Emily and slits her throat, framing Cee for murder. That gets her sent to a psych ward, where she is hit with the double whammy of the trust being conveniently withdrawn and the discovery that she is pregnant. Both come from Adrian’s lawyer brother and mouthpiece Tom (Michael Dorman), who taunts her that of course Adrian knew everything going on in his house, down to her secretive pill taking. He replaced her pills with placebos—birth control sabotage, as part of the larger patterns of reproductive coercion often seen in intimate partner violence. There is no better word for this brutal series of events than nightmarish; every moment takes on the lurid panic of a dream that you can’t escape, as Cee loses her physical freedom, her financial freedom, and even control over her own body.

Once Adrian confirms that Cee is pregnant, he stops attacking her—but he also won’t ever let her go. Her only option, Tom tells her, is to agree to have the baby and go back to her old life with Adrian. After a seemingly final showdown with the Invisible Man, in which Cecilia first makes him visible using a fire extinguisher and then shoots him dead, the result appears to be that it was Tom who was terrorizing her. Adrian is found imprisoned within his own home, claiming his brother snapped and committed all these crimes on his behalf.

The Invisible Man review wish fulfillment ending Elisabeth Moss domestic violence

Screenshot: Universal Pictures

Only Cee sees past the lies. For the first time shielding her intentions from the audience, she agrees to reconcile with Adrian, returning to his home wearing clothes she treated herself to with his money. She seems willing to raise the baby with him, so long as he’ll admit to what he did so they can start over with every piece of information out in the open. He denies it, and there is an oh-so-brief moment in which one wonders whether Cecilia was imagining some of it. But then he, the supposed tech genius who doesn’t think to search his ex for the wire she is surely wearing, lets drop the word “surprise”—the same word he taunted her with when he had a suit to hide in. It’s not enough to get a confession out of him, but it confirms for Cee, and for us, that she’s not crazy.

So she gets up, excuses herself to the bathroom, returns in the suit she’d previously stashed, and slits Adrian’s throat. Or rather, she makes it look for the ever-present cameras as if he’s slit his own throat with his steak knife. For good measure, when she reappears on-camera, she calls 911 with convincing hysteria before leaving to join her poor accessory-to-murder James in his getaway car—carrying the suit and with a steely new resolve in her expression.

The Invisible Man’s final shot brings to mind plenty of episodes of The Handmaid’s Tale, with Moss’ face turned almost ugly in its rage, filling the shot so there is nowhere to look but directly into her eyes. Considering his star, how could Whannell resist such a visual? But what is meant to be a moment of vicious triumph feels more like a Pyrrhic victory. By donning Adrian’s suit and even stealing his throat-slashing move, Cee comes out no better than him. And that’s not necessarily a fair reaction; it holds her to a higher degree of morality, submitting her, the victim, to the typical (binary) gendered double standard of expecting a (more restrained) woman to not sink to a (brutal, aggressive) man’s level. Of course Cecilia deserves revenge; but her taking it by using Adrian’s tools against him lets down the character, after all that she’s suffered. What is intended as a universal, wish-fulfillment ending doesn’t fit the specific heroine Whannell spent all this time crafting.

We already saw Cee for who she was. She was already the invisible woman, even without the suit.

Part of this uneasiness is related to how the issue of Cecilia’s pregnancy is left unresolved. The only mentions of it are as bargaining chips, first in Tom’s offer and at the end when Cee dangles it in front of Adrian in exchange for his confession. When she leaves that house for the third and final time, she’s carrying two of Adrian’s creations, and there is no clarification as to whether she will keep the one inside her womb. Cecilia makes it clear early on, when detailing the abuse, that she did not want a child. At the same time, it seems rather telling that so much time is devoted to showing Cee’s protectiveness of teenage Sydney, a coded mother-daughter relationship that drives the showdown with Tom. In the end, however, the movie does not address the choice she faces in any way.

Perhaps by leaving this question unanswered, the aim was to signal that the decision is entirely in Cecilia’s hands—having regained control and agency over her life, what comes next is entirely up to her: end of story. And yet by not addressing it, the movie opens the door to the standard reasoning seen time and time again in film and television (most recently, in the last season of Outlander) for keeping an abuser or rapist’s baby—that even if its conception was caused by an evil person, the resulting life is innocent. All of which is true, but is not reason enough for Cecilia to keep a pregnancy she ultimately does not want. In the end, the failure to engage at all with the choice she faces detracts from any sense of triumph in her newfound freedom, as we watch her reenter a world where a women’s right to make choices about her own body is still consistently compromised, undermined, and outright attacked.

It drives home the fact that in a movie like The Invisible Man, it’s what’s not said and not seen—the visual and conversational negative spaces—that are most important.

Natalie Zutter had read that Cecilia means blind, but it took her until typing it out to get the Cee = see reference. Talk feminist retellings with her on Twitter!

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