The Invisible Man
The Fallacy of the Affective
The reviews for The Invisible Man have been so overwhelmingly positive that a film which shouldn't really require our attention demands pause for thought. Critic Andrew Whalen says, "The Invisible Man is about domestic abuse, and mines real-world traumas for horror genre scares but avoids common pitfalls like exploitation sadism or the thematic generalizing of [central character] Cecilia into an avatar for all women." (Newsweek) Charlotte O'Sullivan in The Standard reckons "it's as if director Leigh Whannell, when writing the script, had access to a crystal ball. The birth of MeToo; the backlash; Harvey Weinstein, becuffed. All the extraordinary stages of a global movement are played out, as Cecilia comes into her own." But at what price does Cecilia come into her own; to what degree is it perfectly okay to mine real-world trauma for generic glee? Many American filmmakers today, not just those reliant on the comic book appeal of a superhero movie, may insist they believe stronger gun control is needed in American society but at the same time they demand an ever greater freedom when they insist on using guns (as well as knives here) to deal with numerous narrative situations. The film is a very vaguely scientific account of a gaslighting story. The villain of the piece is a master of optics and has faked his own suicide and created an invisible suit all the better to make his ex's life a misery after she leaves him. It could have been an innovative account of female abuse, giving the narratively tired (however socially pertinent) subject of gaslighting a useful twist. However, Whannel's film doesn't just use its premise to hint at sci-fi (the novum in Darko Suvin's terms that can turn the film into a plausible but futuristic work as Suvin differentiates in Metamorphoses in Science Fiction fantasy from sci-fi on the basis of the latter's consistency with the properties of physics) but to hyperbolise the action. It is a long shot that someone could invent a suit that makes them unseen by the human eye without being fantastic: someone making themselves actually invisible is indeed fantasy. But camouflage itself does a passable job in numerous situations; the director just extends the notion into the futuristic and the bodysuit, allowing himself the opportunity to utilise the suit as an easy means by which the ex can become a killing machine.
The detail of the suit could have given the film a sense of the uncanny, a sense of impossible possibility, with central character Cecilia Kass (Elizabeth Moss) refusing to believe her ex, Adrian Griffen (Oliver Jackson Cohen) has taken his own life even if a will has been made leaving her a hundred thousand a month for the next five years. The film could have played up the subtle sense that he hasn't really gone away, and left us uncertain whether her mind is playing tricks on her or her ex is doing everything he can to make her life miserable all over again in an absence which is really a new type of presence. While the recent A Ghost Story manages to indicate loss and pain to invoke the fragility of the central character Rooney Mara grieving for her husband, The Invisible Man uses its premise to brutalise the viewer rather than create a sympathetic environment in which to contain her situation. The ex becomes an obstacle to be removed rather than the abuse a pain Cecilia must understand; as if American cinema's purpose is too often to turn an emotional problem into a physical one. When Paul Schrader once proposed that European films generally deal with dilemmas while American films solve problems, The Invisible Man is a very good example of a potential dilemma film that settles for a problem/solution model. As Schrader says, "I don't believe life is about problems and solutions. I believe it is about dilemmas, and dilemmas don't have solutions; they have resolutions, which then morph and lead you into future dilemmas." (Guardian) The point isn't for Cecilia to understand herself, and to comprehend her dilemma, it is to eradicate from her life the man who has for a number of years ruined it.
Consequently, the film pays too little attention to her immediate existence and leaves us musing over simple story details that one wishes to dwell on more than the film does. After Cecilia runs away from the ex's luxury, high-security seaside home, her sister Emily (Harriet Dyer) picks her up and takes her to a friend's place: James (Aldis Hodge), who lives with a daughter in her late teens, Sydney (Storm Reid). We have no idea how come they are friends since there is no suggestion that their personal or professional lives would coincide: she is an architect by trade; he is a police officer; she is white and he is black. She is childless and he has a grown-up daughter. One needn't insist that people of similar professions, racial groups and familial orientations hang out together but if there seems a series of disparities it becomes a question, and often an interesting one. It becomes all the more pressing when we see a central character relying on such a friend in the most difficult of circumstances. Early on there is the suggestion that James isn't someone to whom Cecilia is so close: one reason she is staying with him is because living with Emily would be too high-risk; her partner would easily find her. But is that because the friend has recently moved or is James someone she doesn't know so well? If it is the latter how can she jeopardise James and his daughter's life, knowing that her ex will stop at nothing to get her back? If the viewer were to answer that they aren't at risk because it seems clear early on that her ex is dead, then why is she so annoyed when Emily visits James' place and Cecilia says she shouldn't have come: her ex will be following her?
Is it because the film doesn't really care about any of the characters in the story and more fool the viewer if they try to do so? James says at one moment after a night drinking champagne that he feels pretty bad after all that alcohol and that they must be getting old (hinting perhaps at a time many years earlier when the pair of them would go out drinking?) but he looks in more than his prime with a body built for a superhero film rather than that of a friend in need. If he mentioned that he isn't used to drinking that would have made more sense, but sense isn't what the film wants to make. It wants to cause mayhem.
So we come to the violence. The ex, Adrian announces his presence by invisibly kicking or punching James's daughter in the face, and then a few scenes later when Cecilia persuades her sister to join her for dinner (after the ex has sent a horrible message to Emily from Cecilia's account that has left the sister hurt), the invisible man slits her throat, with all the diners understandably assuming Cecilia is responsible for the deed. Here we have gaslighting as conflagration, with the ex needlessly upping the ante but allowing the film to turn into what it always wanted to become: a violent action thriller. After Cecilia finds herself imprisoned, Adrian invisibly makes his way into the station too, and a series of cops are killed and maimed as Cecilia finally escapes, determined to get back to James's place to save the friend's daughter, who Adrian has threatened to kill.
Our question is why does the film feel so obliged to generate such violence? If Schrader is correct in saying that American film is generally interested in solving problems, classic Hollywood didn't feel the need to do so in the most violent way imaginable. What replaces classic American cinema is hyperbolised Hollywood, a hypocritical entertainments industry that consistently preaches gun control to limit deaths but seems increasingly incapable of proposing solutions to problems other than through murderous mayhem in film. "'Matt Damon wants gun control. In fact, he'd like to see the weapons all but eliminated. In July 2016, Damon was on a press junket when he told reporter Sarah Thomas he wished the US would essentially ban guns, the same way Australia did in the 1990s. 'You guys did it here in one fell swoop, and I wish that could happen in my country,' Damon said. 'But it's such a personal issue for people that we cannot talk about it sensibly. We just can't.'" (Refinery) Kelsey Miller opens her excellent article on Hollywood gun control with Damon's comments, looking later at Charlize Theron and Liam Neeson. "Theron has long been openly anti-gun, having almost been shot by her own father, who was himself shot and killed in self-defense, by her mother. In 2014, she even convinced then boyfriend Sean Penn to scrap his massive collection of 'cowardly killing machines.'" "Neeson, perhaps more than any celebrity, has declared himself not only pro-gun control, but anti-Second Amendment, full stop. It is the right to bear arms that is the problem, he claimed. America's gun culture, [is] a fucking disgrace." Yet there they are making films like the Bourne movies, the Taken franchise and Mad Max. "The US is home to both the largest percentage of guns per capita and the most influential entertainment industry on earth." Miller adds, "Movies are more violent, ratings more lenient and overall gun-use in film has risen approximately 51 % in the last decade."
Whether there are direct links between screen violence and actual violence is a question beyond our ken but if spree killings are very much on the rise and film violence increasing rapidly too, is this really just Hollywood reflecting an awful reality or is it helping to create it? Whether someone can claim to answer this question, the posing of it might make Hollywood pause enough for thought to go easy on the trigger, to muse over other ways to generate narrative tension without constantly killing people. There are numerous great filmmaker whose work is predicated on violence (Martin Scorsese, Arthur Penn and Sam Peckinpah's films would be greatly altered and no doubt weakened by diegetic gun control), and there are very fine films full of violence that are insistently questioning the aggression depicted: like Elephant, In the Bedroom and The History of Violence. This needn't at all be a question of representational censorship. It is more when witnessing a failure of imagination in many films that see extreme aggression as a default state we call out their imaginative impoverishment. There is no reason why The Invisible Man needs to kill off numerous characters if we accept with one critic, Jenn Adams, herself a victim of abuse, that the film wants us to empathise very strongly with Cecilia, and if it wants the novelty of a gaslighting film within a sci-fi concept. Violence in film is now so frequent, the murder of so many characters for irrelevant ends so common, that it's as if the video game aesthetic has found its way into cinema without the compensating fact that the video game generates a first-person perspective where the player pushes through a world to their goal. It is the ultimate example of Schrader's problem versus dilemma if we accept that the problem demands a sensory-motor need to push ahead (many video games are nothing if not endoscopic), while a dilemma asks us to look at the complex variables. When Adams speaks of her own difficulty getting out of an abusive relationship she attends rather more to those complexities than the film she is admiring, but one reason why we have aesthetic objects as narrative purpose rests on that old Aristotelian saw, catharsis. The audience would watch Greek tragedy all the better to understand an aspect of their own lives and to see in the tragic events befalling others their own learning curve and emotional purging: "effecting through pity and fear the purification (katharsis) of such emotions." (Poetics)
Yet understanding was at least as important as the purge; it was part of a broader politics that Aristotle explored in The Nicomachean Ethics: "for example, fear, confidence, desire, anger, pity and in general pleasure and distress can be experienced in greater or lesser degree, and in both cases wrongly. To feel them at the right time, in response to the right thing, with regard to the right people, for the right reason and in the right way that is the mean and the optimum, which is the characteristic of virtue." Is The Invisible Man a virtuous work or merely a vengeful one: a film that seeks out the sort of lesser instincts of a game rather than that of an art? We needn't denigrate the video game per se, but it is to insist that the video game would fall well short of Aristotle's claims for the dramatic. When we question the characterisation and the narrative of Whannel's film, our aim isn't to pick away pedantically at holes in the movie, but to get a better sense of its misplaced priorities. It is all very well that it wants very much to side with Cecilia, feel her isolation, her fear and what might seem like her impending madness. If the film were too inclined to fill out the other characters that concentration of identification might have been lost. It is understandable that we don't see Adrian until near the end of the film, and witness a nice-looking, kind and gentle man who will do anything for his partner (but at the same time happens to be a murderous control freak): the film wants him to be for most of the film a monster of fright not a figure of modulations. Yet the consequence of this is we might wonder for most of the film why she was so drawn to him in the first place, and stayed for a number of years. There are vague allusions to his brilliance but throughout far more instances of Cecilia's instability. We have to take Cecilia's perspective on faith, evident in the way James reacts at the end of the film. He's been recording the dinner Cecilia and Adrian have been having, with Cecilia determined to get a confession out of her ex, trying to get him to admit what he has done in return for living with him again. He won't admit it, Cecilia dons the invisible suit and cuts his throat. James accepts that she was right and he will cover up the deed.
It is here we can return again to the character of James. Most reviewers agree that he is a friend but Jeffrey Sanzel indicates that actually James is Emily's ex-husband: "the film opens with Cecilia narrowly escaping her violent husband and taking shelter with her sister Emily's (Harriet Dyer) ex-husband James (Aldis Hodge), a San Francisco police detective." (TBRNewsMedia) From one angle this makes sense: James' place in Cecilia's life seems so vague that it would at least bolster why he is doing so much for her. But it also then makes nonsense of various details in the story. When Emily comes round to see her early in the film, Cecilia reacts as if she is wrong to do so, but wouldn't she be there as much to see her daughter as to see Cecilia, and isn't Cecilia being unreasonable to tell her sister to stay away for Cecilia's sake while ignoring the mother-daughter bond? And later wouldn't James and Sydney be distraught after it seems Cecilia has killed James' ex-wife and Sydney's mother? We have lazy characterisation one way or the other. The ex-wife notion gives credibility to why James is close to someone who otherwise seems a bit of a stranger but then creates implausibilities elsewhere. The film may wish to concentrate very strongly on Cecilia's perspective but it does so to the detriment of creating a believable world, an aesthetic world in the sense that Aristotle proposes and that the video game can understandably eschew. Yet the more films resemble video games, the more they wish to generate a tunnel-visioned, endoscopic view of the world, the more the ethical dimension disappears. Someone watching The Invisible Man might insist that focusing on the other characters is to miss the point. "By beginning the movie with Cecilia's late-night escape and focusing almost solely on her," Adams says, "Whanell allows the audience to side with the victim and opens the door for much-needed empathy." (Consequence of Sound) Adams' review as we have noted is predicated on her own abusive relationship many years earlier, and she has some important things to say about the abuse she received and the reasons why she stayed in the relationship so long. Yet she is also in danger of falling into an affective fallacy: refusing to differentiate what the film is and what it does; what the film is as an aesthetic object and what it means to her. The film may prove a cathartic experience for Adams when she says, "as Cecilia adjusts to life outside of the relationship, we begin to see the PTSD symptoms appear. A tentative trip to the mailbox ends as she is startled by a jogger, a trigger I have experienced many times. When I see someone with a particular haircut or style of dress, my brain sometimes sees my first husband instead. My head may know that I'm safe, but my body perceives him as a threat and triggers a fight or flight response." But here she is emphasising the affective response to the detriment of the work more generally. If a viewer sees in a film chiefly their own experiences then this isn't attending to the work but attending to the self, a useful position and no doubt a dimension of how we respond to a film that we view. Yet the person who suffers from a trauma may not be the best person to judge the aesthetic merit of the work generally, just as a victim is unlikely to be the best person to judge objectively what sentence should be passed on the person who committed the crime.
One of the problems we may have with a film such as The Invisible Man, as well as other recent horror thrillers like Us, Mandy or Drag Me to Hell (as opposed to Get Out, A Ghost Story, The Babadook and It Follows) is that the films are emotive rather than cathartic, encouraging exactly the sort of responses that close down the ethical and play up the sensational. When Adrian refuses to admit all he has done the film proposes that Cecilia has little choice but to don the suit and slit his throat in a manner identical to the way Adrian killed her sister. It isn't so much an eye for an eye but a throat for a throat, a symmetrical revenge that will please many a viewer no matter if Emily wasn't the most sympathetic character in the film. Justice has been done, even if Adrian has committed many more offences, not least to the cops he killed over at the station. But he has indeed, in another cliche, had a taste of his own medicine: it wouldn't have been quite so gratifying for the audience if Cecilia had merely killed him visibly by other means, and not at all if he had confessed and been taken away by the police. Yet this where the emotive replaces the cathartic: in an ironic mode that can leave someone cheering Cecilia's ingenuity rather than considering the variables involved. She has put James in a difficult situation; he was supposed to help her to get a confession on tape, not to tidy up and cover up a murder crime. If revenge is famously a dish served cold then in the sort of emotive cinema The Invisible Man practices it is served at well above room temperature, usually working the viewer up into an excitable frenzy that gives the impression there is no choice but to take out the villain.
However, it is when the wishes of the viewer collide with the ethos of a broader society that the catharsis rather than the emotive becomes evident. The difference between Death Wish and (the Schrader scripted) Taxi Driver is that between a film which says it is okay for Charles Bronson to slaughter whichever thug he likes since it makes him feel better after his wife's murder and his daughter's rape, and Taxi Driver's much more open conclusion which asks us are we happy that an unhinged cabbie played by Robert de Niro has been taken as a local hero. When Medea slaughters her children or when Oedipus sleeps with his mother and kills his father, we know why they did so, but the plays ask us to question Medea's behaviour and Oedipus's arrogant blindness. We hardly cheer them on.
"As a survivor of an abusive marriage," Adams says, "I've rarely felt so seen by a film." Yet should a film see us or should we see it; to view a work from our own narrow perspective, however valid and traumatic our experience and however well a film captures it, leaves us ignoring everything about the work that isn't about seeing us. Adams has nothing to say about the implausibilities the film offers, and instead directly correlates its generic goals with her own traumatic feelings. "When Emily delivers the news that Adrian is dead, we want Cecilia to feel relieved. But the effects of trauma are long-lasting. I haven't seen or heard from my first husband in years, but I think about him often, and I feel his impact on my life every day. Cecilia does, too." Adams adds, "while there is no logical reason for her to be afraid, she still senses Adrian around every corner. Yes, by the movie's logic, he probably is there and the threat is real, but PTSD is real, too. Cecilia would arguably have the same fears were Adrian not to torture her from inside his invisibility suit." Yet the fear Adams expresses belongs to a very different film from the one the director has made. The sort of sceptical response we may initially have to the apparently overreacting Cecilia, gives way to horror when it looks like Cecilia has punched James's daughter, confusion when she insists to James that Adrian has killed her sister, and complicity when she kills Adrian and asks James to keep it between them.
While it is always a little unfair to suggest a film could be better done differently, certainly one that focused on James' point of view over Cecilia's would have made for a far more ethical work, but in the art of emotive drama The Invisible Man insists upon, peripheral characters aren't part of the broader framework, they are more or less helpers or hinderers, people who get in the way or aid our hero or heroine's journey. In one scene someone drives Cecilia over to Adrian's house determined to find the invisible suits she suspects Adrian has been wearing. She seems to know the driver but there is no context for him whatsoever, a character reduced to the most basic tenets of helping without an explanation offered. James, by the end of the film proves to be the most loyal of helpers, just as Adrian's brother has proved the greatest hinderer: he has spent the film doing his brother's bidding, albeit apparently forced. If so, that makes him a sympathetic character but the film has no interest in him and no sympathy for him because he functions as a hinderer rather than a helper. Adams says in her review that "a friend recently told me that ending an abusive relationship is easy. "You just leave," he said. While overly simplified, this is the way a large portion of society views intimate partner violence." Yet The Invisible Man is consistent with such a simplified view of the world, a Hollywood hyperbolisation that gives the viewer the impression that a problem solved is a person killed and the dilemma remains reserved increasingly for the sort of European drama Schrader invokes.
© Tony McKibbin