The Invisible Man
File this one under stop acting so impressed.
And, yeah, there are spoilers ahead . . .
Leigh Whannell’s film The Invisible Man presents an update of the old H.G. Wells novel. The story itself bears little resemblance to Wells’s original story, but that’s hardly surprising. The keynote of the rework is to recast the story as tale of a woman, Cecelia (Elisabeth Moss), who begins to suspect that her abusive ex-boyfriend Adrian (Oliver Jackson-Cohen) has faked his death in order torment and regain control of her. I suspect
Wells—a progressive socialist who embraced the idea of equal rights for women—would approve of the feminist slant here.
The gender politics are not the only things to like. Whannell clearly knows his way around a camera, and the result is a good-looking, visually-interesting movie. Moss’s performance is strong, at times even compelling, as she struggles first with trying to adjust to her new-found freedom, then with the uncertainty about her own sanity, and, lastly, with the frustration of not being believed. In this last phase, the movie’s social commentary is particularly trenchant: Adrian’s invisibility makes him a potent symbol of “average guy” abusers everywhere, who get away with their crimes because people simply refuse to see the toxic creep for what he is.
The Invisible Man is, however, far from a good movie, and the reason is simply that Whannell is not as good a screenwriter as he is a director. Oh, the script has its strengths: I like how the beginning drops the viewer right into the midst of the story with Cecelia’s escape without bogging us down in needless explanation, but mostly it presents static two-dimensional characters (Cecelia is the exception) clearly earmarked as good guys or bad guys from the start and who behave in utterly predictable ways. Far worse, the script has plot holes large enough to drive a semi through.
Consider, for instance, the jaw-dropping ineptitude of the finale. Somehow we are supposed to believe that Adrian, who we’ve been told is a master manipulator who understands Cecelia inside and out, is unobservant and thick-witted enough to let her go wondering through his house with no concerns about what she’s up to. And there’s no doubt she had to be gone quite a while here—long enough to locate the invisibility suit that just happens to still be sitting around there somewhere, put it on, and figure out how the damn thing works, too. It never seems to occur to Whannell that an Adrian clever enough to hatch the plot with which he tormented Cecelia is not likely to be dumb enough—even given his massive ego—to wait there for her to sneak back in and cut his throat. That’s not even the biggest problem here, however. It’s the cameras. You know . . . all those damn cameras we saw Cecelia shut off during in the opening scene? In the end, she is clearly counting on the dining room surveillance footage to help sell officials on the idea that Adrian committed suicide. Apparently, she has forgotten (and Whannell is hoping that the viewers will also forget) that there are cameras in all the other rooms, too—cameras that will clearly show her suiting up to kill Adrian—or, at the very least, will show her shutting all cameras down prior to his “suicide.” Either way, she’s going to have a fuck of a lot of explaining to do when the cops pick her up.
Let’s be honest: in the real world, the issue of vigilante justice can be fraught with peril. Most of the time I read about someone taking the law into their own hands it turns out to be some self-appointed watchdog blowing away a “suspicious” black man. So it’s nice that, at least in the fictional and cinematic worlds, we sometimes get the pleasure of seeing a deserving villain get what he had coming. Adrian is a liar, a sadistic bully, and a murderer who deserves what happens to him. That said, Whannell should have taken time and care to deliver the coup de grâce more convincingly. Shoddy plotting is neither frightening nor satisfying.
The Only Good Indians
Stephen Graham Jones
**** Spoilers Ahead ****
It’s terrifying to watch the things you have worked for being torn apart, to see your life and the lives of those you love being demolished by forces you cannot control. The horror of your impotence is further amplified if you realize, at the same time, that you helped set those destructive forces in motion.
That’s the situation Lewis faces in Stephen Graham Jones’s The Only Good Indians. One day he is living a seemingly normal, unremarkable life—happy enough, it seems, with a wife and a motorcycle and a job at the post office. Then his past metastasizes, grows claws and teeth—or at least a set of sturdy hooves to kick the shit out of him. For Lewis, it starts as a momentary glimpse into another reality from the top of a step ladder, a bewildering glimpse of a past he thought he left behind when he left the reservation. It quickly turns into an unnerving descent into fear, uncertainty—who are the agents of the past, how will the growing danger he senses manifest itself?—and violence. What Jones unveils is the dreadful power of the past, how horror can grow out of a single moment and come shrieking at you across the years to devour, without winnowing, everything in its path.
The terror of this is magnified by the fact that it is not simply Lewis who is destroyed. Rage and blood lust yield plenty of collateral damage. And after Lewis dies midway through the book, the carnage only intensifies. This is not, of course, wholly unexpected: Jones has already cast the book as the story of four friends and has shared Ricky’s bloody end before turning his attention to Lewis. But, read from a particular perspective, Lewis’s demise seems premature. In the European tradition, the novel’s roots are associated with the rise of individualism: the long-fiction form evolved as the examination of the life and adventures of a single figure (think Don Quixote and Gulliver) and the intricacies of the individual consciousness (think Tristam Shandy and, ultimately, Leopold Bloom). Here, as the latter part of the book unfolds, Jones forces us to see that the stories of Cass and Gabe are not secondary to Lewis's. While Lewis fired the specific bullet that set the wheels of vengeance in motion, all four of them fired that fateful day. Wrongdoing, guilt, and retribution are all shared.
This idea is not entirely unprecedented in horror fiction, of course. The idea that collective sin earns collective wages is not new. Still, Jones’s strong foregrounding of Lewis in the earlier sections of the book had the effect, for me, of emphasizing how his story differs from the traditional notion of the novel as one man’s story. It shifted my focus as a reader onto the ways that events are greater than one person and how our actions can have brutal, terrifying long-term consequences beyond our individual lives.
This isn’t to say that Jones presents a world of unmitigated doom. In the end, he graces us with Denorah, whose persistence and courage yield insight and, finally, mercy. Her No! is born despite fear and blood, in the face of danger and vengeance, and it opens the door to new possibilities. In the end, Jones’s narration pulls back to give us a wide-angle shot that casts this final scene against the backdrop of the universe itself and ties past, present, and future into a single knot of hope. It’s an upbeat, unexpected end to a dark, disturbing book—but one that is convincing and well-executed.