Film | ,

Sci Fi meets realism in The Invisible Man

The Invisible Man (2020). Elisabeth Moss.

In re-imagining H.G Well’s psychological thriller as a domestic violence story with his latest film The Invisible Man (2020), Melbourne-born director and writer Leigh Whannel first interviewed survivors to gain insight into their perspective.

I didn’t know this the first time I saw it, but I did look up the film in the hope I would see something that rang true for me as someone who has experienced psychological abuse. I was feeling low, being nine years post-separation and still dealing with threats and harassment from my ex-partner, when I sat down to watch.

From the opening shots, The Invisible Man spoke to my story. It was filmed in Sydney, although nominally set in San Francisco. I found nothing recognisable in the scenery, instead, it was the tone of isolation in this joint Australian-United States production that felt so familiar. In a remote beach house, Cecilia (Elisabeth Moss) is the focus, her eyes snapping open as she lies beside her sleeping partner Adrian (Oliver Jackson-Cohen). Her night-time escape is meticulously planned, and Moss captures the tension of leaving a violent relationship excruciatingly well. That tension is pulled right through the narrative as the whole film is centred on Cecilia’s escape and the slow creep of violence that follows it, intensifying to an unbearable level of horror when her sister’s throat is cut right in front of her. It shows, in torturous detail, how difficult it is to ‘just leave.’

Those horrific repercussions dispel the myth that victims are stupid for not leaving their violent partners. Cecilia is incredibly savvy. There was never a moment when I questioned her actions, every move she made was logical, focussed on survival, though she is almost outwitted by an equally determined Adrian who is focussed on destruction. Adrian uses his expertise as a fibre optics specialist to design an invisibility suit, complete with advanced hologram and camera technology which looks terrifying whenever he shimmers briefly into view. He uses this suit to secretly track and torture Cecilia. Luckily, she is at a point where she is not stunted by love, unlike other on-screen female victims of domestic violence, who often make decisions that lead the viewer to blame them, at least partially, for their suffering. In the mini-series The Slap (2011), Harry’s (Alex Dimitriades) wife Sandi (Diana Glenn) not only forgives him for breaking her jaw, but keeps it a secret to protect him during the lawsuit surrounding his fateful slap of a young child, suggesting she is a co-conspirator for her husband’s violence, against herself and others.

Harry is an arrogant bully, but he is not driven relentlessly to violence, it is an occasional and uncontrolled outburst. His character is closer to the male violence I am used to seeing in Australian film and TV, violence that is habitual, that spills over onto the women because the men just can’t keep it in. Rowan Wood’s The Boys (1998) is aptly named because the male characters are like out of control children, rough-housing and talking smack to the women. As the ringleader of the group Brett (David Wenham) is frightening and manipulative, but he lacks Adrian’s psychopathic focus, when Brett’s girlfriend Michelle (Toni Collette) leaves after he beats her in the laundry, he lets her go, shifting his sights seamlessly to a random woman on the street. The boys sit in the car after dark, watching the woman wait for a bus. Brett’s final line, “Let’s get her,” is spontaneous, a random violent thought spawned from a lifetime of similar thoughts, not driven by obsession for one specific victim. Though it is sinister and systemic.

In The Invisible Man, Adrian’s need for Cecilia is different. He is like a heat seeking missile, locked onto her, no one else will do. “He needs you because you don’t need him. No one’s ever left him before. But he’s punished you enough now,” Adrian’s brother Tom (Michael Dorman) explains to Cecilia. Adrian’s punishment is an extreme form of coercive control designed to get her back under his command. He terrorises Cecilia while remaining unseen, gaslighting her and making her appear unhinged. His methods are so sophisticated that no one believes Cecilia, an unfortunately common experience for victims. This sci fi element that gives Adrian the upper hand not only demonstrates the modern problem of technology stalking, it also highlights the manipulative ability of perpetrators to shift blame to the victim, to make the victim look crazy, so the perpetrator can avoid detection and consequences. As Jess Hill writes in her Stella Award winning book See What You Made Me Do, ‘The abuser’s most skilful trick is to make his abuse invisible.’ (Pg. 29.)

The metaphor of invisibility is powerful, but the violence often depicted on Australian screen is not so stealthy. From the causal disrespect of women in the chaotic Wake in Fright (1971) where the men are violent as a response to their harsh outback environment, to the performative violence in Chopper (2000) where one character accurately tells Mark ‘Chopper’ Read (Eric Bana), “You are such a fucking show pony!” violence is commonly woven into the characters and their surroundings, cultural, inextricable, visible. When Chopper beats his girlfriend in front of her mother, it is just a part of his general behaviour, provoked by sexual jealousy, but not exclusive to her. Though it is generally either minimised or ignored, the violence is both indiscriminate and on display for all to se

In my experience, domestic abuse thrives in secret. It is mostly also selective. Targeted. This is how they get away with it, and how they manage to do terrible things to their victims and still be described as a ‘good bloke’ by other people in their life. Adrian’s wider reputation is not really explored beyond his successful career, but his ability to shape-shift is shown at the end when he meets with Cecilia for dinner. Not including the opening shots of him sleeping, and the frantic moment when he smashes his hand through the car window when Cecilia is escaping, it is the first time the viewer gets to see him properly, without the invisibility suit. It’s a shock because he is so meek, so affable, handsome. It throws you. You can almost forget about his hand smashing through glass, because now his hand is shaking with nerves as he tries to win Cecilia back. “You know you’re the only person in the world who gets to see my hand shake,” he tells her with a nervous laugh.

What a manipulative piece of work! Pretending to be vulnerable to reel her back in. Though there is doubt, at this point, about who really did all those terrible things, it was this line that made me hate him the most. It also made me certain it was him. The only thing lacking in the evidence is a motive. Unlike the iconic Australian thugs who are products of a violent culture, a rough upbringing, poverty, intergenerational trauma and other similar causes, Adrian is a mystery. His violence is frightening both for its laser-like determination and its inscrutability. He is not an alcoholic or someone who struggles with a temper. He is, as Cecilia describes him ‘perfectly in control.’ His actions are a choice – cold and calculated. His need for Cecilia is based on entitlement, but we don’t know what makes his so dangerously extreme. Though Australian-made, the film feels universal, there are no references to cultural violence, it is all focussed on the violent man himself. No excuses are made for what he does. From his sins, the invisible man has nowhere to hide.

I had nowhere to hide either. It was all a bit close to the bone, with no respite from the relentless tension, even the lighter moments felt like tiny rests for the violence to gather strength. Cecilia joking around with her friends appeared forced, and there is no humour at all for the viewer, just tension interrupted by moments of horror. It was like being back in that violent relationship, feeling ‘on edge,’ always waiting for an attack, and maybe that’s the point, but it makes it hard to watch. A few laughs would have helped me cope until the relief of the justice which only comes right at the end. To hammer home the complexity of the issue, Cecilia’s eventual triumph is shadowed with doubt. “You heard it, right?” she asks her friend to confirm that Adrian is the culprit. The sci fi part of this film is what makes it feel so authentic. Adrian’s invisibility almost allowed him to remain undetected, free to engage in torture without consequence, and for a film about domestic violence, that’s unfortunately all too real.

Alexandra O’Sullivan writes fiction, creative nonfiction, articles and reviews. Her work has appeared in Kill Your Darlings, Sydney Morning Herald and Meanjin. She has been shortlisted for awards including The Newcastle Short Story Award and The Profane Nonfiction Prize.