• Entertainment
  • movies

How The Invisible Man Based Its Gaslighting Thriller on Real-Life Stories of Abuse

8 minute read

It’s hard to believe that the newest version of The Invisible Man, in theaters Feb. 28, hasn’t been made before. The first adaptation of H.G. Wells’ 1897 novel premiered in 1933, during the heyday of Universal Studios’ monster movie boom, and the Invisible Man stood as a scary specter alongside Frankenstein and Dracula. The very R-rated Paul Verhoeven version starring Kevin Bacon, Hollow Man (2000), similarly framed the titular Invisible Man as the protagonist.

But writer-director Leigh Whannell’s new movie turns the camera, for the first time, on the Invisible Man’s victim. It’s such an obvious setup for a great thriller — the Invisible Man wreaking havoc on his victim’s life as a metaphor for gaslighting and abuse — but perhaps one the male-dominated film industry wasn’t ready to take on before the #MeToo era.

We meet Cecilia (Elisabeth Moss) on the night she decides to flee her abusive tech tycoon boyfriends’ fortress-like mansion. We learn later that he has manipulated her, isolated her, physically abused her and — it’s later strongly insinuated — repeatedly raped her. After the soon-to-be Invisible Man (his name is Adrian Griffin, a nod to the Griffin of Wells’ novel) fakes his own death and dons a suit that renders him invisible (he made his millions in the field of optics, convenient for a sociopathic stalker), he deploys the same methods to try to bring Cecilia under his control again. Invisibility suit aside, these aren’t the arbitrary actions of a fictional madman but rather very real strategies that abusers use to control their victims, ones that Whannell incorporated into the script after conducting interviews on the topic of domestic abuse with experts and with women in his life.

Whannell was well aware that he needed to tell this story from a woman’s point of view, one which he’d need to seek outside of his own life experience. He interviewed two domestic violence counselors at Peace Over Violence, a domestic violence prevention center headquartered in Los Angeles. “In one story, a woman’s partner put a lock on the fridge to control when she could eat,” he says. “Only he had the combination to the lock. I was so shocked by that. It started to dovetail neatly into this character I was creating.”

He then spoke with female friends about their experiences with sexism and finally enlisted Moss to sit down with him over the course of several three-to-four-hour sessions and review the script with him. “He fully recognized that there was a female perspective that needed to be listened to, and I could help in providing that,” Moss says. “That’s of course exactly what he should have done, but not every director creates that open space.”

Whannell was shocked when the women in his life all separately shared the same anecdote of walking to their cars with their keys between their fingers, to use as a weapon if needed. It’s a common practice for women, and its revelation to Whannell serves as a reminder that while men can make excellent films about the topic of domestic abuse (last year’s Oscar-nominated documentary Minding the Gap is perhaps the gold standard), men who tell women’s stories must commit to listening to women in order to adequately capture the female experience.

Recent depictions of domestic abuse have faced criticism: Big Little Lies portrayed a husband (Alexander Skårsgard) beating his wife (Nicole Kidman) as a sort of sexual kink — until it wasn’t — and the casual brutality in Margot Robbie’s Tonya Harding movie I, Tonya felt jarring in the context of an otherwise comical film. Filmmakers often feel the need to maximize the drama of violence rather than trust the audience to understand that it existed and caused significant damage.

In The Invisible Man, Whannell has restraint enough not to show this physical abuse onscreen, focusing instead on the psychological consequences it has on its protagonist, Elisabeth Moss’ Cecilia, after she leaves her relationship. “In movies and TV shows, we’ve seen physical violence depicted many times before,” says Whannell. “But I felt I had not seen the emotional abuse and manipulation as much.”

Cecilia Kass (Elisabeth Moss, back to camera) and Adrian Griffin (Oliver Jackson-Cohen) in "The Invisible Man," written and directed by Leigh Whannell.
Cecilia (Elisabeth Moss) and Adrian (Oliver Jackson-Cohen) in "The Invisible Man," written and directed by Leigh Whannell.Mark Rogers/Universal Pictures.

Those emotional abuses at the center of Invisible Man may be harder to render in cinema, but they are equally as real. The film finds ways to illustrate this manipulation, beginning with the titular abuser driving Cecilia’s friends and family away. Isolating someone from their social network — whether physically or emotionally — is a way to keep the abused person from fleeing the relationship. And, according to the counselors with whom Whannell spoke, without a support network victims tend to blame themselves for their situation. “They emphasized to me how the most important part of their jobs is to tell people they’re not alone, and that it’s not their fault,” he says.

Cecilia’s ex also tries to leverage the promise of millions left to her in his will (much of which Cecilia promised use to pay for a friend’s education) into yet another means of control. Some 99% of all domestic abuse cases involve financial abuse, which includes restricting a woman’s daily spending, stealing money from her, preventing financial account access and sabotaging employment and education opportunities, according to the Purple Purse, a foundation dedicated to empowering women financially to escape abusive homes. It’s the top reason women stay in abusive relationships and why they return even if they’ve left. Such financial manipulation can block a victim from leaving her abuser or leave her homeless, jobless or unable to pay her bills if she does manage to escape, according to a study by Angela Littwin, who conducted the first major study on what she calls “coerced debt” in 2011.

Finally, the Invisible Man threatens to sabotage Cecilia’s reproductive choices in an attempt to have a baby and effectively tether them together forever. Abusers routinely use children in order to manipulate their partners and force them to stay in the relationship. A 2007 study out of Michigan State University, the first of its kind, found 88% of women who had faced domestic abuse reported their assailant using custody battles over children to keep in touch with their victims, interrogating children about their mothers’ whereabouts in order to stalk or manipulate them or even using visitation with the children in order to continue the physical and emotional abuse of the mother. The victims surveyed said that the fathers of their children often threatened to harm or abduct the offspring in order to coerce the mother, who tended to prioritized the children’s safety over her own, into doing their bidding.

As her ex taunts her, Cecilia begs her family and friends to believe that he is still alive. Nobody believes her, a resonant notion in the #MeToo era when claims of abuse are still dismissed as “he said, she said” cases. If you can’t see it, the logic goes, then it must not be real.

“Even as women, we can be quick to judge and go, ‘Why is she staying?’” says Moss. “‘If he’s hitting her or emotionally abusing her or the relationship is toxic, why doesn’t she get out?’ And as the victim, that makes you feel like you can’t talk about it, like you don’t have a safe place to go.”

Ultimately, the movie cannot resist transitioning into a revenge fantasy, which, while emotionally satisfying, is not true to life. Cecilia’s initial escape from her abuser signals the exceptionalism of this story. As is often the case with Hollywood depictions of domestic violence, the victim is a privileged white woman with the economic means to leave her abuser, an unrealistic outcome for most women who find themselves in a similar position.

The movie also builds to an inevitable physical confrontation between Cecilia and her husband, as these kinds of films so often do (think: Jennifer Lopez’s Enough or Julia Roberts’ Sleeping With the Enemy). But confronting one’s abuser often puts women’s lives in danger. Abusive relationships can be life-or-death: 2017 saw 2,237 homicides by intimate partners, according to the New York Times, a 19% increase since 2014. And as a recent headline-making case proved, women can also suffer legal consequences for defending themselves.

Art may be the one realm where we can conjure stories of vengeance and justice that simply do not exist in the real world. “It’s interesting doing these interviews with the [conviction of Harvey] Weinstein in the news this week,” says Moss. “You just hope that offers something, some closure, to the victims. But you can’t make it go away.”

More Must-Reads From TIME

Write to Eliana Dockterman at eliana.dockterman@time.com