Should you happen to be driving home alone after viewing “The Invisible Man,” and should you happen to pause before getting into the car, wondering how to be absolutely certain that there isn’t an invisible man in there … well, you’re not really alone because I did that, too, just for a second. Such is the impact of this very clever, very entertaining contemporary monster movie, in which a Bay Area architect named Cecilia (Elisabeth Moss) is convinced that her violent, controlling ex-boyfriend is stalking her — invisibly.
Written and directed by Leigh Whannell and inspired by a character created by H.G. Wells (first immortalized in a feature film in the James Whale 1933 horror classic), “The Invisible Man” is centered on Moss’ Cecilia, who may or may not be having a nervous breakdown. In the early scenes, she escapes from the cliffside home of Adrian (Oliver Jackson-Cohen), who is a scientist and “optics specialist,” late at night while he’s sleeping. Whannell expertly plays with our fears: the sudden metallic screech of a dog dish accidentally kicked in the quiet; the house’s labyrinthine hallways; the breathing darkness of an empty road.
Brought to safety in the home of friend James (Aldis Hodge) and his daughter Sydney (Storm Reid), Cecilia slowly begins to exhale after learning that Adrian has killed himself. And then — is he not really dead, but tormenting her and her loved ones from within his high-tech invisibility suit? Or is Cecilia, a woman clearly on the brink, seeing things (or not seeing things) that aren’t there?
The film answers this question relatively quickly; the suspense here isn’t in figuring out what’s happening, but in wondering how it will resolve. And the fun is watching the shivery details — such as a shot of the back of Cecilia’s neck, in which we can almost feel the sudden scent of a presence — and appreciating the skill of Moss’ performance. As Peggy in “Mad Men,” she brought an earnest, aching honesty to her character, and she does something similar here, letting us see the steppingstones of Cecilia’s fear, agony and ultimate grim determination. You cheer her on, as she fights something she can’t see as her unearthly blue eyes desperately catch the light; an irresistible survivor and heroine.
★★★ “The Invisible Man,” with Elisabeth Moss, Aldis Hodge, Storm Reid, Harriet Dyer, Michael Dorman, Oliver Jackson-Cohen. Written and directed by Leigh Whannell. 124 minutes. Rated R for some strong bloody violence and language. Opens Feb. 28 at multiple theaters.