The Invisible Man Does Elegantly What Promising Young Woman Fails to Do with Lectures
I’m going under the knife to fix my shoulder tomorrow, and I’m not entirely sure when the next post will be up. It’s only an hour-long procedure and I’ll be going home right after, so it shouldn’t be more than a matter of a couple days. If you’re looking for something to read in the meantime, next week we’ll be doing a Book Club short story discussion about Stephen Crane’s “The Open Boat,” which has sometimes been nominated as the best short story ever written. So give it a read and we’ll discuss next week.
The opening salvo of reviews of the 2020 film The Invisible Man might have made you wince a little bit, if you’ve become inured to the endless injection of contemporary political fads into pop culture. It’s a horror movie where the real monster is not a vampire or ghost but a gaslighting, abusive husband. When I read that summary when the movie first came out I thought that there was a chance that such a setup could lead to something really inventive and moving, but a much bigger chance that it would be a heavy-handed disaster, the kind of movie that demands credit for its politics rather than for how well it integrates them. Having finally seen it, I can very happily say that it’s the former, a tight, genuinely-frightening dagger of a movie that satisfies all of its genre conventions while creating a believable portrayal of very real and mundane horror. It’s not a horror movie that dutifully performs a little bit of good progressive politics while you wait for the good stuff to start up again; it’s a horror movie where the profound terror and cruelty of intimate partner violence are totally inseparable from its effectiveness and its message.
“Gaslighting” is a term that’s been rendered almost entirely meaningless by overuse and casual misuse, but it arose for a reason and refers to a genuinely very cruel practice - causing someone you’re intimate with to feel that they are losing their mind as a means of control. (You’ll notice that this is not the same as a stranger disagreeing with you.) What makes The Invisible Man so remarkable is how effectively it intertwines this very real kind of psychological warfare with the fantastical type of the plot, which is to say someone using an invisibility suit to punish his abused wife for fleeing him. The last half-hour of the film might be a bit pat, but there’s no time when the movie stops to deliver a lecture; all of the political valence is baked right into the cake, which makes it more effective and more likely to reach a viewer who would not be receptive to a more explicit political monologue.
When I was complaining about Pitchfork giving a positive grade to a genuinely awful album for purely political reasons, I did a little drive-by complaining about Promising Young Woman, which several people asked me to expand on. Promising Young Woman (another 2020 movie) tells the story of a woman whose best friend killed herself following a rape, and who has taken to entrapping men who would sexually assault her if they had the chance. I could imagine a good movie based on that premise, but the real thing is everything I don’t like about politics in contemporary films and movies, a dull recitation of 2018-era progressive talking points, a freshman Intro to Women’s Studies term paper turned into a film. Carrie Mulligan gives it her all, but ultimately like everyone else in the movie her character is a vehicle, a vessel for a capital-M Message rather than someone we might be able to see as a plausible real-life human being. The examination of the Nice Guy trope - you see, guys, sometimes guys who think of themselves as nice are also abusive misogynists - is so incredibly hamhanded and artless, it’s incredible. It’s just a Vox.com essay, a pedantic lecture that no doubt inspired a million boyfriends to dutifully whisper “that’s the ‘nice guy’” to their partners. We’re not supposed to see Mulligan’s Cassie as someone whose behavior we might want to emulate, but the movie also doesn’t ever really get around to critiquing what she’s doing. And even the punishments that she hands down to the creepy men she hunts are weirdly inert, which prevents the film from having the kind of gaga verve it might have had if it wasn’t taking itself so seriously. Cassie’s ending scheme, which she appears to pull off perfectly, is frankly batshit and unconvincing even by the terms of this movie.
But the movie got very good reviews, overall. To each their own. Part of the problem with movies made to flatter the politics of critics, though, is that you can never be sure just how authentic the praise it receives might be.
I want to stress, for the record, that my feeling that Invisible Man is a much superior politically-charged film is not necessarily a matter of subtlety or restraint. I mean, I do think that Invisible Man is more subtle in its politics than Promising Young Woman, but those politics are still front and center, still unapologetic. The movie makes no bones about its themes of gaslighting and abuse and pulls no punches in representing them in explicitly gendered terms. But it does so in service to the horror movie that it is; it delivers via drama that which Promising Young Woman delivers via lecture. This was my complaint about the recent Candyman movie as well. It would be absurd to complain that the 2021 version is “political” as a lover of the original, which is unambiguously and explicitly political as well. But in the original, Candyman himself is allowed to just be a monster (“be my victim”) where in the latter he is forced to be an avenging angel for race crimes (“tell everyone”). It’s therefore no surprise that the original is more affecting than the reboot. Candyman gets to be a slasher movie villain, and Candyman 1992 gets to be a slasher movie, and it’s by inserting no-bones-about-it lefty politics into what’s otherwise a faithful slasher movie that the original destabilizes the viewer. Jordan Peele’s rebootquel, in contrast, is a movie where the horror elements feel like an inconvenience that get in the way of characters telling you about racial injustice. It’s never really dedicated to being a horror movie, and is thus not scary, and thus can’t layer in its politics to people who have had their guard brought down by the scares. It’s a shame! There was so much talent behind that movie.
Adam Nayman ably described The Invisible Man’s power in a brief synopsis for The Ringer, saying that the film’s “mandate is to startle its audience with surface-level shocks while simultaneously subverting expectations in a deeper way, dropping us out of our comfort zone toward some sunken place.” That “sunken place,” to my mind, is the kind of space that can certainly be political but which can’t be decomposed down to issues, down to a list of offenses and policy proposals. The sunken place is the darkest recesses of our mind, which yes is where the gaslighter lives, which yes is what spousal abuse accesses, which yes is intimately connected to all of our day-to-day sexist horrors. (Horrors which are, I trust you know, all too real and all too commonplace.) Had Elizabeth Moss’s protagonist halted the movie in its last act to remind everyone that domestic violence is bad, had she delivered a soliloquy on why gaslighting is an epidemic, we would have been immediately ripped out of that sunken place and into the quotidian world of listicle politics. But the movie didn’t do that; it let itself be a movie first, and went looking for horror trusting that the politics would be that much more powerful.
I am, actually, quite happy that more types of people are getting the ability to get shows and movies made, and it has been a real injustice in the past that so many people from minority groups have been frozen out. Unfortunately, I’m also very often underwhelmed by the art that’s being made as a result of this opening of doors, in large measure because the people who make those decisions think that movies by women or people of color are meant to be political first and foremost. The trouble is that diversity in the creation of art only really has meaning if it’s good art; if we’re just giving out golf claps in response to more superficial diversity, we’re certainly not actually honoring diverse filmmaking. We should honor only the good, honor art for art’s sake. I look forward to a correction for this stuff in the coming years, where getting more films by women and filmmakers of color stops being a novelty and people are more comfortable letting the stories tell the tale, in and of and for themselves.