The Invisible Man & Society’s Invisible Epidemic of Abuse
“The Invisible Man” was first a science fiction piece published as a series in Pearson’s Weekly in 1897. It was published as a novel later in that same year. Author H. G. Wells told the story of Griffin, a scientist who discovered a way to make himself permanently invisible but never found a way to reverse it. The novel focused on a man who later became a monster corrupted by power and control. The first film adaptation of this novel did not arrive until 1933, during the Universal Studio’s monster movie boom. This created a new horror icon and placed The Invisible Man in the ranks of Dracula, Frankenstein, and The Wolfman.
The latest re-imaging of “The Invisible Man” by director Leigh Whannell stands apart from its predecessors because it focuses less on the title character and more on a very real, and often invisible, threat within our society. According to numbers published by The National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, more than 10 million adults experience domestic violence annually in the United States. Only about 900,000 to 3,000,000 cases are actually reported annually. 1 in 4 women and 1 in 10 men experience sexual violence, physical violence, and/or stalking by an intimate partner during their lifetime. The number of intimate partner victimizations in the United States increased by 42% from 2016 to 2018. It is society’s complacency that makes both the crimes and the perpetrators “invisible” in our off-screen reality.
Whannell’s film is a psychological thriller that highlights gaslighting, stalking, and domestic violence in a way that victims, survivors, and advocates are all too familiar with. It illustrates the full scope of a victim’s experience, from the initial escape, to the after-effects of trauma, to the temptation to return.
The film opens on a foreboding modern mansion in the dead of night. In true horror-genre tradition, jump scares are used particularly effectively to make the audience experience the terror of the female lead, Cecilia Kass (Elisabeth Moss), even before we fully understand what is taking place in this opening scene. We see a fortress of a home complete with surveillance equipment, motion sensors, alarms, and keypad locks, all surrounded by an impenetrable-looking wall on a one side and a cliff overlooking the ocean on the other side. The audience can sense that they are watching a woman who is trying desperately to flee from something, despite the lack of dialogue or exposition.
“One night I was sitting and thinking about how to leave Adrian. I was planning the whole thing in my mind. And he was staring at me. Studying me. Without me saying a single word, he said that I could never leave him.” – Cecilia Kass
The truth is that this woman should be terrified. The time immediately following escape is the most dangerous time for domestic violence victims and survivors. This is when the abuser, in this case the boyfriend Adrian Griffin (Oliver Jackson-Cohen), will go to dangerous lengths to reclaim their control over their victim. Take this news article about a domestic homicide in our local area as one example:
Cecilia is rescued by her sister arriving to pick her up in the middle of the road and demanding an explanation. She seems not only oblivious to her loved-one’s ongoing abuse, but also to the very real threat running towards her car in the form of a tall and muscular man. Adrian manages to punch through the car’s window, but only after the vehicle is already in motion.
Many victims withhold information about their abuse from friends and family out of fear that they will not be believed when speaking disparagingly about an abuser who is well-liked and well-respected. Once Cecilia is finally able to speak about her experience, we hear an uncomfortable and all too common story unfold that includes physical violence, control, manipulation, coerced substance use, reproductive coercion, and heavily insinuated rape.
“He was in complete control of everything. Including me. He controlled how I looked, what I wore, what I ate. Then he was controlling when I left the house. What I said. Eventually what I thought.” – Cecilia Kass
To prepare for the film’s script, director Whannell conducted extensive research on the topic of domestic violence. He interviewed two domestic violence counselors at a prevention center in Los Angeles, California. He also spoke candidly to female friends and acquaintances in his own life to ensure that he was honoring a female victim’s perspective.
He recounted to Beatrice Verhoeven, reporter for The Wrap, one shocking revelation that he had, “One thing I found eye-opening for me and begged to be alluded to in the movie was that all of my friends said, separate from each other, that they would walk back to their cars with their keys between their fingers, ready to go, ready to stab at somebody to fight back. It was shocking to find that fight-or-flight mode that women have to live by. On a conscious level, you’re aware that women have to be afraid, but it’s another thing to have close friends tell you they are afraid of someone coming out of the shadows. And I felt that tied in with the metaphor of the Invisible Man — this unseen figure who’s looking at you and following you.”
This film, though centered on themes of domestic violence, shows the audience little physical violence onscreen. Whannell has chosen instead to focus more on the psychological damage and fallout experienced by Cecilia following her escape to safety. This is remarkably effective when approaching forms of abuse that are less obvious and leave no physical scars or bruises, like gaslighting, a tactic that makes a victim question their own reality and sanity.
We clearly see Cecilia displaying symptoms of agoraphobia and post-traumatic stress disorder even while safe with a friend in a location undisclosed to her abuser. The simple task of walking from the front door to the mailbox at the end of the driveway becomes too overwhelming to be completed. The audience can feel the tension in this scene expertly punctuated by an artful musical score.
This method of building tension is repeated throughout the film, later with the added element of camera angles lingering on empty voids of space, begging the audience to strain to see what we know must be there. This subtly replicates the feelings of self-doubt and confusion that are so common for victims of gaslighting abuse. When Cecilia is faced with her friend’s doubts concerning her experience, she is quick to simply dismiss it and apologize. Invalidating a victim’s experience is problematic for a multitude of reasons. For some that lack of validation lends the slightest glimmer of hope that the abuse is imagined and not actually occurring at all, which means that it will not need to be addressed or dealt with.
It is within those first few weeks after escaping that Cecilia learns of Adrian’s death by an apparent suicide. She is forced to listen to the manipulative words of her abuser from beyond the grave when they are read aloud by his brother Tom, who is also his attorney, during his will reading. Cecilia inherits millions that she eagerly uses to help the people who hid her from her abuser. But it is not long before we see Cecilia faint during a job interview that was sabotaged by the supposedly deceased Adrian. The audience learns that Cecilia was drugged in the very same manner that she had drugged her abuser on the night that she fled. We see that Adrian, now The Invisible Man, even left the pill bottle out on the bathroom counter for Cecilia to find. There can be no doubt in the minds of audience members that something nefarious is taking place just out of sight.
It becomes apparent that Adrian faked his death for the purposes of continuing his manipulative abuse and control over his victim. A successful millionaire in the field of optics technology, he has created a suit that renders him completely invisible using a multitude of cameras and lenses. It is not this newfound ability that births a monster, as we saw in Well’s novel. Adrian already was a monster. He has merely found a new way to exercise his abuse that is so much more terrifying and so easy to imagine as a future theoretical possibility.
“He said that wherever I went, he would find me, walk right up to me, and I wouldn’t be able to see him.” – Cecilia Kass
Cecilia’s sister, Emily, confronts her after receiving a scathing email that Adrian sent posing as Cecilia. The abuser has succeeded in further isolating his victim from her support system as the doubts of those close to her clash with her own certainty that her abuser is not dead and is not done with her yet. Isolating a victim from their emotional, financial, and physical safety network is a tactic commonly used by abusers to ensure that their victims will remain vulnerable and will be less likely to attempt to flee the relationship. As a result, Cecilia is unintentionally gaslighted by her friends and family members. It just seems more likely that Cecilia is having an extreme reaction to her past trauma than being truthful about her situation and experiences.
The audience comes to learn that Cecilia is 4-5 weeks pregnant. Adrian has successfully sabotaged her reproductive control to force this pregnancy upon her as a way of creating a life-long tie to her. As with the other forms of abuse already mentioned, this tactic is another that is far from uncommon. According to a 2007 study out of Michigan State University, 88% of women who faced domestic violence reported that their abusers used their children to force compliance. An abuser may threaten to harm or abduct the victim’s children, question their children on the mother’s whereabouts or habits, or manipulate child custody battles to remain in contact with their victim.
Adrian’s brother Tom responds to the news of Cecilia’s pregnancy by admitting that Adrian has been alive all along and is now ready to reconcile. Bearing his child and returning to his control will be required for Cecilia to keep her inheritance. Failure to comply with this will see her confined to a psychiatric hospital instead. Economic abuse and coerced debt are still more techniques employed by real-world abusers. According to All State’s Purple Purse foundation, 99% of all domestic violence cases involve some form of economic abuse. Abuser’s will restrict their victim’s daily spending, steal their earnings, and sabotage their employment and education opportunities. Financial coercion and abuse may be the primary reason women remain in abusive relationships. Leaving could see the victim homeless, jobless, and unable to support themselves.
Adrian escalates his violence and turns it towards the people close to Cecilia, with devastating consequences and in a way that implicates her as the perpetrator. It feels like Cecilia will never escape this unseen force controlling every aspect of her life. Once she realizes the lengths that Adrian is willing to go to just to keep her under his control, Cecilia decides to meet with him face to face. Any victim confronting their abuser would be inadvisable in real life. Doing so often puts women’s lives in danger. According to the “New York Times”, we have seen a 19% increase in intimate partner homicides since 2014.
What might be the most heartbreaking scene in this film comes toward the end when Cecilia desperately implores her abuser to confess. But he will not. Instead this Hollywood plot is resolved neatly with an entirely unrealistic revenge fantasy. It is still satisfying to see this woman regain her power and seeing her take a deep breath for the first time in the entire film makes for an enormously powerful ending.
“Just tell me the truth. I need to know that I’m not crazy, okay?” – Cecilia Kass
Blumhouse Productions released “The Invisible Man” February 28, 2020. It stars Elisabeth Moss of The Handmaid’s Tale, Oliver Jackson-Cohen of The Haunting of Hill House, Harriet Dyer of The InBetween, Aldis Hodge of Black Mirror, Storm Reid of A Wrinkle in Time, and Michael Dorman of Patriot. The film was shot over 40 days on a budget of $7 million. It grossed $122.7 million internationally and $28.9 million domestically during it’s opening weekend. Leigh Whannel and Elisabeth Moss have already earned two awards from the Hollywood Critics Association: one for Best Screenplay and one for Best Actress, respectively. “The Invisible Man” has a run time of 2 hours and 4 minutes and is still available to rent or purchase from Amazon Prime Video.