Director and screenwriter Leigh Whannell didn’t set out to make a movie about the dangers of men gaslighting women and the true horror of people not believing victims when they talk about their abuse.
But when Whannell started to work on the script for the latest iteration of The Invisible Man, a remake of the classic sci-fi novel by H.G. Wells that has been adapted into television and film numerous times, these timely themes came up organically and ultimately shaped the entire plot of the film, which stars Elisabeth Moss as Cecilia and Oliver Jackson-Cohen as her husband, Adrian Griffin (aka the Invisible Man himself).
“I didn't go into this film thinking, How do I wrap this iconic character around a story about gaslighting?” Whannell told BuzzFeed News. “It was during the writing of that first draft that I felt the movie drifting in this direction of gaslighting, domestic abuse, and women not being believed or feeling like there's an unseen threat. It felt like it really fit his character naturally.”
At a time when movements like #MeToo have led to abusive and toxic men being held accountable more than ever, the 2020 version of The Invisible Man has a whole other meaning — and induces a whole other level of fear — for viewers.
WARNING: Massive spoilers ahead!
The audience first meets Cecilia when she’s escaping from her husband Adrian and their cold, isolated home. She manages to hide out at a friend’s house and is told that Adrian killed himself, but Cecilia believes she’s being haunted by her dead husband after countless instances of an invisible figure torturing her and those around her.
“I didn't want to be that person who's shoehorning a social issue into a movie that doesn't warrant it,” Whannell said. “I felt that it was organic and it spoke to the metaphor of the Invisible Man. This is a villain who is notable by his absence; the superpower that this iconic villain possesses is the ability to be standing next to you without you knowing it. And so what better way to exploit that than through gaslighting and all these issues?”
Whannell said Elisabeth Moss was his “partner in crime” who helped give significant feedback on the script once she came on board the project. As a man telling this story about the abuse and violence experienced by a lead woman character, Whannell said that Moss “brought invaluable perspective as a woman that I don’t have.” The two would “dissect the dialogue together,” and she would talk the director through how she would handle a particular situation if she were in Cecilia’s shoes.
“I obviously saw her as the authority on the woman's point of view, so I was just really receptive and thankful to have her,” Whannell said. “It was that stamp of approval that I got from Lizzie that allowed me to sleep at night when I was making this film and not feel like an imposter telling a story that I wasn't qualified to tell.”
In addition to his conversations with Moss, Whannell said he spoke to counselors at domestic violence shelters for women in Los Angeles, as well as other friends of his, about women’s relationships and fears. He wanted the story to come across as authentic as possible, which meant doing research.
“It was interesting to see the commonalities that would come up between disconnected friends of mine separated by oceans,” he said. “It didn't matter where they were from — they would come back to this thing about having to walk back to their car at night with their keys between their fingers, ready to go. I felt like there was a chance for the Invisible Man to literalize this fear of the unseen person that’s watching you walk back to your car.”
According to Whannell, the horror genre lends itself to depicting the worst of society’s systemic problems because it can illustrate our collective fears. In the case of The Invisible Man, Cecilia’s character is an example of what it’s like for a woman to be driven to feel “crazy” in the wake of abuse when no one around you believes what you’re saying.
When he was alive, Cecilia’s husband Adrian was charismatic and manipulative enough that no one would believe her when she told them about the abuse. When he’s allegedly dead, Cecilia tries to tell her friend James, her sister Alice (Harriet Dyer), and Adrian’s lawyer brother Tom (Michael Dorman) that she thinks Adrian is still alive and haunting her, but no one believes her because they think it’s impossible for her brilliant scientist husband to have created technology that would allow him to exist invisibly.
“It’s the idea that you’re losing your mind. A lot of women I spoke to talked about this feeling of being afraid to speak up or say a certain thing in case someone thinks you're crazy or thinks you're difficult,” Whannell said. “Horror has always been a Trojan horse for a wider social message. To me, horror films are an expression of our anxiety as a society. It's always been that way.”
While no one believes her, the Invisible Man continues to wreak havoc in Cecilia’s world: He switches her medication, sends a nasty email to her sister, hits James’s daughter Sydney (Storm Reid) in the face, and even slits Cecilia’s sister’s throat at a public restaurant. Everyone thinks Cecilia is the perpetrator of all these acts, causing her to be arrested and placed in a psychiatric hospital.
The director said he wanted Cecilia’s character to be “the voice of reason in the film, the one who knows what’s really going on” and that everyone else around her “has a warped view of the situation.” But despite what’s real and what’s not, people see what they believe to be true, allowing Adrian to continue to successfully gaslight Cecelia even in his alleged death in the same way that he successfully haunted and tortured her when he was alive.
“He's a charming narcissist and he’s a sociopath. If you do the research into narcissists and sociopaths, they’re very, very charming. They're scientists of the human condition and can break someone down very quickly, assess their needs and desires, and play to that,” Whannell said. “Some people live their whole lives in a state of performance and you get very good at manipulating people in such a skillful way that everybody falls into line. There are people out there who are just amazing at manipulation, and society rewards them.”
After Cecilia escapes from the psychiatric hospital and ends up in a violent battle with the invisible figure back at her friend James’s house, Cecilia unmasks the man in the invisibility suit and viewers are surprised to see Adrian’s now dead brother. The cops then find Adrian tied up in his basement, with him claiming that his brother kidnapped him and orchestrated the whole ordeal.
Cecilia still doesn’t believe this to be true and comes up with one final plot to reveal Adrian’s abuse by agreeing to have dinner at their former house — only this time she’ll be wearing a wire to record him. She has the intention of getting him to admit on tape that he was, in fact, the Invisible Man the whole time. When he refuses and Cecilia fails to make any headway, she beats Adrian at his own game and excuses herself from the dinner table, puts on his invisibility suit, and kills him, making it look like a suicide.
The twist ending is Cecilia’s own bit of redemption; if the law wasn’t going to hold Adrian accountable, she was going to find her own way to ensure her own safety and peace.
“I've dragged the protagonist through the mud and at the end I want to give some catharsis,” Whannel said. “I wanted the character to feel free.”