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The Invisible Man and Domestic Violence on Screen

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EDITOR’S NOTE: some minor spoilers below


With the recent remake of The Invisible Man, writer/director Leigh Whannell presents modern take on the original story from 1933, in which a chemist (played by Claude Rains) develops a formula for invisibility, and ultimately falls into a downward spiral of betrayal and murder as a result of his discovery. The new version presents some key differences to the story: the invisible man is not driven to violence because of his newfound power, but actually invents a high-tech invisibility suit for the purpose of carrying out acts of violence. And, more importantly, the protagonist is not the invisible man himself, but rather his traumatized former girlfriend, who bears the brunt of his psychotic behavior. The film isn’t really about the novelty of becoming invisible. It’s a film about domestic violence.

With Hollywood being rocked by the #MeToo movement, stories about violence against women have made it to the screen with a deeper level of compassion and authenticity. The HBO series Big Little Lies and Netflix’s limited series Unbelievable have brought the topic to the small screen, and films like Bombshell and The Assistant are finally willing to expose the harsh realities of what women can endure in professional spaces – specifically in media. Which leads me to hope: is Hollywood finally ready to believe women?

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As a thriller, the new version of The Invisible Man has more in common with past survival action/thriller films about domestic violence, such as Fear (1996), starring Reese Witherspoon and Mark Wahlberg, or Enough (2002), starring Jennifer Lopez, than it does with some other contemporary works. What’s especially notable about The Invisible Man, however, is that unlike other films that tackle the subject, we never see our protagonist abused on screen as part of her backstory.

Elizabeth Moss gives a spectacular performance as Cecelia, the woman being stalked and tormented by her abusive ex-boyfriend, Adrian (played by Oliver Jackson-Cohen). The twist: Adrian has found a way to make himself invisible. What could be worse? Well, according to the rest of the world, he’s actually dead, having left Cecelia a small fortune in his will – one she will only receive if she never commits a crime or is never declared mentally unstable. Adrian’s plan is the ultimate gaslighting technique.

When we first meet Cecelia, she’s lying wide awake in the bed she shares with Adrian. She checks to make sure he’s deeply asleep, then springs into action, executing what is clearly a carefully planned escape from his concrete, prison-like home, a plan which even included drugging him to make sure he’s sound asleep. Still, Cecelia looks over her shoulder every two seconds, monitors him on security cameras, and is careful to be as quiet as possible.

What are the stakes for her, exactly? We don’t really know, because we’ve never seen Adrian awake. But we know it’s bad enough for her to need to get away fast, and to be this terrified of waking him, even though he’s been drugged.

Put another way: We. Just. Fucking. Believe. Her.

And because we believe her, we’re not shocked at Adrian’s horrible plot for revenge; we already know to expect this of him.

Cecelia escapes from Adrian’s house and is rescued by her sister, Emily (Harriet Dyer), and finds a safe home with Emily’s boyfriend, James (Aldis Hodge), and his teenage daughter, Sydney (Storm Reid). They, too, believe Cecelia’s harrowing experiences with Adrian. When Cecelia pushes herself to be brave enough to check the mail (the first time she’s left the house since her escape), she panics just before reaching the mailbox and hurries back inside. When she apologizes to James for not making it all the way there, he lovingly tells her, “you went all the way to the end of the driveway. To me, you just walked on the moon.”

Though they show Cecelia plenty of support at first, the invisible man theory is where they draw the line. To them, this is a delusion, a result of deep paranoia, mixed with complicated feelings of despair and relief. Thus, the conflict of the film: Cecelia is being abused, framed, and dismissed, all at the same time.

However, the audience is never stuck in the middle, wondering if this will all turn out to be in her head by the end. Because we believed her from the beginning, we know what she sees is real. That, along with Moss’s powerful performance and Whannell’s carefully crafted story arc, is what makes the tension so palpable throughout the film.

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Cecelia’s experience is a powerful allegory for how survivors of abuse can continue to be haunted by the trauma, and how it feels not to be believed when something truly terrible is happening. With Hollywood’s #MeToo reckoning, the remake has arrived at exactly the right time to propel the conversation of womens’ experiences and their representation on screen.

Jessica Hobbs

About Jessica Hobbs

Jessica Hobbs spent the early part of her career working in technical theater, opera, and film festivals while earning her film degree at the University of Colorado. She spent a year touring with a Vaudeville show, which included a 3-week run at the New Victory Theater in New York. After five years working in Reality TV as a writer’s assistant and Associate Producer, she made the move to Los Angeles and took a job with the Sundance Institute, while also working as a freelance writer and producer for film, theatre, and TV.