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Review: Thanks to a superb Elisabeth Moss, this ‘Invisible Man’ is something to see

Elisabeth Moss in "The Invisible Man."
(Universal Studios)

If you didn’t already know just how good an actress Elisabeth Moss is, you’d have a sense from the very first scene of “The Invisible Man.” Wide awake at 3:42 a.m., she quietly extricates herself from the man sleeping beside her, rises from their bed and, after a few ominously involved precautions, slips out into the night. The filmmaking is tightrope-taut, with elegant camera movements and edits that slice like blades. But it’s Moss who makes this woman’s terror your own, with her skittery movements, tightened muscles and air of persistent panic, as if she were forever steeling herself for an attack from behind.

Her name is Cecilia Kass, though tellingly, it will be some time before we know this; here, the Australian writer-director Leigh Whannell sympathetically suggests, is a woman robbed of her personhood. She’s been planning her daring escape for a while, and for good reason: The house, overlooking a stretch of Bay Area coast, is a maximum-security fortress, a modernist maze of surveillance cameras that speak to the ruthlessly controlling mind of their owner. That would be Adrian (Oliver Jackson-Cohen), a wealthy scientist and sadistic abuser who, upon realizing that Cecilia has left him, devises one hell of a revenge scheme.

That isn’t a spoiler, never fear — or maybe you should. A smart and satisfyingly nasty piece of work, “The Invisible Man” has its roots in H.G. Wells’ 1897 novel, which was previously adapted into the 1933 film directed by James Whale. It’s nominally the latest Universal Pictures reboot of one of its classic horror properties, but happily, it has nothing in common — in terms of plot, style or quality — with 2017’s risible update of “The Mummy.” Instead it’s elegant and diabolically poised, a familiar story expertly retooled for an era of tech-bro sociopathy and #MeToo outrage, but also graced with an insistently human pulse. Studio brand extensions rarely feel this intimate, this personally unnerving.

Elisabeth Moss in "The Invisible Man."
(Universal Studios)
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In effectively turning the story into a gaslighting thriller with shades of “Fatal Attraction” and “Sleeping With the Enemy,” Whannell more or less eliminates any sense of doubt or ambiguity at the outset. He abandons the element of surprise, following the Hitchcockian logic that suspense is the better investment by far. And with that suspense comes total identification. It doesn’t take Cecilia or the audience long to figure out what’s going on: Adrian, a genius in the field of optics and a full-blown sociopath, is stalking her using some kind of ultra-high-tech invisibility suit. We are fully with Cecilia from the get-go, even as her loved ones become convinced she’s losing her mind.

You can’t blame them. Two weeks after Cecilia’s escape, Adrian turns up dead in an apparent suicide. The fact that he left Cecilia a $5-million inheritance — as explained by his brother and executor, Tom (a splendidly skeezy Michael Dorman) — should be a dead giveaway that something’s not quite right with this picture. But Cecilia tries to move on, only to realize, after a few ingenious set pieces and at least two supremely vicious shocks, that Adrian won’t let her. Instead he has devised an intricate physical and psychological trap from beyond the grave, one whose walls keep ruthlessly closing in on her, squeezing her into tighter and tighter confines.

For Universal’s “The Invisible Man,” star Elisabeth Moss and writer-director Leigh Whannell modernize the classic movie monster with a female-forward and tech-centric storyline that brings back the scares.

Whether the movie is sending Cecilia up a ladder into a shadowy attic or staging a knock-down, drag-out melee in an open living room, it’s clear that Whannell has a keen sense of visual space. (It’s something he presumably shares with Cecilia, who was an architect before her relationship with Adrian cut things short.) This is not the first time the director has taken on a preposterous science-fiction conceit, as he did in the underappreciated “Upgrade” (a.k.a. the good version of “Venom”), but his creative contributions to the “Insidious” series were likely what prepared him most for this particular exercise. When your stalker can follow you anywhere, every house is basically a haunted house.

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There’s a bit of David Fincher’s “Panic Room” in the way Whannell’s gliding cameras map out every interior of Alex Holmes’ production design, and maybe a whisper of “Gone Girl” — or rather, “Gone Boy” — in the movie’s game of broken-relationship peekaboo. Whannell has fun playing all the virtuosic tricks you can play with invisibility: the doors that open of their own volition, the footprints that appear where no footprints should, the revelatory properties of vapor, rain and coffee grounds. He even pushes buttons he may not have even intended to; if you suffer from trypophobia, you’re in for an extra-hellish experience.

Aldis Hodge in "The Invisible Man."
(Universal Studios)

But what makes “The Invisible Man” rather more penetrating than the usual mainstream freakout, even in those moments when the roughly two-hour narrative risks overextending itself, is that you feel you know the identity of Cecilia’s enemy intimately. His malevolent sense of entitlement feels both personal and palpable. And despite or perhaps because of its concessions to genre — its hairsbreadth escapes and expertly drawn-out shivers — the movie takes on a particular resonance at the moment, partly because it’s implicitly a story about the dangers of not believing women. It’s also a story of female violation and trauma, and the difficulties of working through that trauma with loved ones.

Does that sound exploitative? I’d suggest the ruthless exploitation of our wounds and fears is one reason some of us go to horror movies in the first place; what matters is how skillfully it’s being done. Early on, before the story proper is even underway, Cecilia is shown to suffer from extreme agoraphobia as a result of Adrian’s abuse; she’s emotionally and psychologically devastated. Her sister (Harriet Dyer), with whom she has an intriguingly difficult relationship, offers strength but little comfort. Aldis Hodge, who gave one of last year’s best, least heralded performances in the independent drama “Clemency,” brings some warmth and levity to the crucial role of Cecilia’s cop friend, James; as his teenage daughter, Storm Reid (“A Wrinkle in Time”) is no less appealing.

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But their support too has its conditions and limitations. There’s a convulsive power to the scenes in which Cecilia realizes how profoundly alone she is, screaming wildly at an attacker who only she knows is present, and all but daring others around her to call her a liar (or worse, “hysterical”). Even in these moments, Moss seems incapable of playing Cecilia as just another imperiled scream queen. Her most affecting moments are actually her quietest, those moments when she can barely choke out her words, knowing how preposterous they must sound. But for a captive audience, doubting her is never an option. We see exactly what she sees, and it’s terrifying.

‘The Invisible Man’

Rating: R, for some strong bloody violence, and language

Running time: 2 hours, 5 minutes

Playing: Opens Feb. 28 in general release


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