By John H. Foote
Clint Eastwood once stated that half of his job was done with casting, that once the actors were in place, he could relax and just let them do their job on set. He believes that actors are very creative people, hired to do a job and he expects them to do that job, and gives them the freedom on set to do it.
Leigh Wannell must have felt that way when he cast the extraordinary Elisabeth Moss in his remake and reimagining of the classic horror film The Invisible Man (1933). Moss is the current actress on the rise in Hollywood, possessed of substantial gifts as an artist and without question on the track to stardom and a handful of awards. She is the most likely young actress under 40 to win an Academy Award in the not so distant future, an astonishing talent who allows the audience to get to know to her, to become close with her, flaws and all. I first became aware of Moss in the film Girl, Interrupted (1999) where she portrayed the childlike pyromaniac Polly, badly burned in one of her own fires, a sweet girl with dangerous tendencies. From there Moss spent several seasons on The West Wing (1999-2006) as Zoe Bartlett, youngest daughter of the President of the United States portrayed by Martin Sheen. Acting every day with that ensemble must have been like attending the Actors Studio, I cannot imagine greater teachers than the actors assembled for that classic series. When The West Wing ended, Moss jumped into the popular series Mad Men (2007-2015), winning an Emmy as Peggy Olson, a young woman climbing the ladder of success in a male dominated world. More recently she has been earning acclaim and many awards for her stunning portrayal of June in the sensational The Handmaid’s Tale where she and other women attempt to survive in a dystopian future society where fertile women are seen as baby machines to the wealthy.
Last year Moss was simply electrifying in the film Her Smell (2019) as an erratic rock star, fighting her personal demons, getting too high too often, drinking heavily, and behaving like a spoiled child, or screaming harpy, however you wish to see her. It must have been an actor’s dream to portray such a character, and Moss lit the screen up with her intense, demonic portrayal, though her character was not easy to like. I thought she was deserving of an Oscar nomination for the performance, but not enough people saw the film.
Universal failed miserably with the first film in their new Dark Universe franchise The Mummy (2017), failing to reign in star Tom Cruise and remind him it was a horror film, not a Tom Cruise action flick. Instead, the star flexed his muscles and turned the movie into a Tom Cruise vehicle, and one of the year’s worst films and biggest disasters. It seemed the Dark Universe was finished before it got out of the gate. While I am not sure Universal will ever get rid of the foul stench of The Mummy without a remake, they have bounced back strong with and excellent update of The Invisible Man.
Written by H.G. Wells more than 100 years ago, the story first came to film in 1933 with Claude Rains as the gentle voiced man wrapped in cloth to hide the nothingness underneath. Slowly the invisibility drives him mad as he becomes more and more of a megalomaniac and a murderer. This new film, however updated, follows that story but we see it through the eyes of Cecilia, being stalked and tormented by her ex, Adrian, a brilliant man of science who, we think, has found a way through digital technology to become invisible. Escaping what is an oppressive, abusive relationship with Adrian, Cecilia is thrilled to be away from him but saddened to learn he kills himself shortly after, leaving her $5 million in his will.
But she begins to suspect he is not gone at all, that he faked his death and is in fact invisible and all around her. Her mounting paranoia strikes her friends as abnormal, but they cannot deny strange things are happening. Her belongings disappear, items move in her surroundings, there appears to be a body sitting in a chair, and things move on their own in her home and when she is around. Despite her belief that her ex is very much alive and has discovered a way to be invisible, no one believes her. This gives the film an interesting narrative, in that this poor, terrorized soul knows in her gut, in her heart and soul something is terrorizing her, but no one believes her. NO ONE. Can you imagine?
Her ex, Adrian, if it is him at all, becomes a dangerous and terrifying force in her life because he can slip in and out of any building or room undetected. He steals things, he fires off nasty emails, and he eventually becomes very physically abusive towards her. The abuse she suffered when she was with him, when she could see him, is nothing compared to what he does to her while invisible. And every fibre of her being tells her it is him.
It becomes her mission to expose him but that presents many challenges because, well, he is invisible, but she is resourceful and smart, and knows him much better than he anticipates.
The heart and soul of this film is Elisabeth Moss and she is positively brilliant as an anguished Cecilia, giving the kind of performance not often seen in horror films. Her mounting paranoia, coupled with her certainty that it is her ex terrorizing her, makes for a stunning array of emotions from this enormously gifted actress. Not yet 40, Moss has proven she is on the rise, if not already there, as one of this generation’s finest actresses. In fact, she is so good here, you will barely remember anyone else in the film. The remaining cast are fine, but Moss takes it to another level. Her performance is a great piece of physical work as she is tossed around, choked, bashed and assaulted throughout the film, but proves to be stronger than anyone imagined. While no one believes her, she knows, and that certainty drives her to expose him.
The scenes of her being attacked and assaulted are very disturbing, and so they should be, as it reminds us that invisible or not, an assault is an assault. It must be terrible for women to report such assaults, and not be believed, or doubted, or have their entire sexual past called into question. While that theme percolates beneath the narrative, it cannot be denied.
It would have been easy to make a film based on The Invisible Man similar to the thriller Hollow Man (2000) made 20 years ago with Kevin Bacon and Elisabeth Shue, but oh what a terrible waste of the talent of Moss. It’s so rare that horror films like this are actually about something, that they have something to say about society. With the #MeToo movement in full swing, with Harvey Weinstein headed to jail, how perfect this film is opening this week.
A solid film, elevated immensely by the brilliance of Moss. She is astounding. And the Universal Dark Universe? It’s back.
John H. Foote is a well-recognized Canadian film critic/historian who has been an active critic for 30 years. His deep love for the movies began at a very young age. He began his career as co-host of the popular TV show Reel to Real where he remained for nine years. While on TV he began dabbling in education, eventually ascending to Director of the Toronto Film School, where he also taught film history. After leaving the college to care for his wife, he returned to teaching at Humber College where he taught both Film History and Method Acting Theory. John has written two books: “Clint Eastwood – Evolution of a Filmmaker” and the upcoming “Spielberg – American Film Visionary”. He is currently working on two books, one about the films of the seventies and another on the films of Martin Scorsese. Through his career he has worked in TV, radio, print and the web. John has interviewed everyone in the industry (more than 300 interviews) except Jack Nicholson, he says sadly. Highlights include Martin Scorsese, Tom Cruise, Meryl Streep Robert Duvall, Jane Fonda, Francis Ford Coppola and Kathryn Bigelow.