* * * 1/2 (out of four)
Sometimes you pick a movie because your friends want to see it. Sometimes you just like the cast or director. And sometimes the trailer reveals an irresistible plot-hook.
For me, it was the latter with “The Invisible Man,” a crackerjack new thriller about an abused woman who flees her domineering husband -- and then shortly afterward, he takes his own life. A pioneering expert in optics, he somewhat inexplicably leaves her $5 million -- provided she remains mentally competent and not guilty of serious crimes.
Before long, Cecilia becomes convinced that he isn’t dead -- and worse, that through his work, he managed to master invisibility. In fact, he has begun to secretly torment the woman, planning to make an issue of the stipulations about mental health and criminal activity. After all, if no one can see him, he can make it seem like she’s the one doing all the terrible things he has in mind.
So yeah -- that’s a pretty good hook.
Using it, “The Invisible Man” triumphs in two major areas:
To begin with, it is scary as all get-out -- and I use that idiom advisedly. The first hour, with Cecilia and friends repeatedly harassed by an unseen menace, is genuinely terrifying -- without recourse to gore or bloodshed.
And second, it perfectly exemplifies the way abusive men interact with their victims. Adrian Griffin -- named for the protagonist of H. G. Wells’ original “Invisible Man” novel -- wants nothing more than to make his wife think it’s all her fault; to drag her back because he can’t stand rejection -- or her independence; and to convince everyone in her life that she, not he, is the problem. In this sense, invisibility becomes an effective symbol of his behind-the-scenes manipulation -- and, perhaps, for her resolve to move on without him.
Initially, I was disappointed that the film did not take full advantage of its set-up: For the first 50 or 60 minutes, why not leave it an open question whether Cecilia really is just imagining things? Writer Leigh Whannell (“Saw,” “Insidious”) could have played some real mind-games with the viewer here.
Instead, we can tell from the very first encounter that the titular stalker is real. But I suspect Whannell wished to avoid any whiff of “blame-the-victim”; it’s bad enough that no one in the story believes Cecilia, without viewers likewise being deluded.
Elisabeth Moss (“Mad Men,” “The Handmaid’s Tale”) is sensational in the lead; her galvanizing performance, so nuanced and sympathetic, moves from nervous determination to terror and near-lunacy -- then finally back to determination.
But in several late scenes, “The Invisible Man” is brutally and unnecessarily violent -- way over the top. I also found the end a trifle problematic -- wishing there could were more to go on than just the word “surprise.”
In every other way, this is a smart and expertly directed scare-fest -- proof that mainstream Hollywood is still capable of something quite original.
“The Invisible Man,”
directed by Leigh Whannell
Run time: 124 min.
Rated R for brutal violence and language