A woman-in-peril movie is a not a new thing (just think of “Wait Until Dark,” “Eyes of Laura Mars,” or “Panic Room”), and neither is a woman-in-peril movie in which the heroine, after being stalked and terrorized, takes charges and fights back. That was the scenario, 30 years ago, in “Sleeping with the Enemy,” a grindingly effective but rather reductive B-movie that became a success in the summer of 1991, mostly because it was the first film designed as a dramatic showcase for Julia Roberts after “Pretty Woman.”
You could say that the premise of just about every woman-in-peril movie is that toxic masculinity is out there, that it’s scary and violent and dangerous, and that it’s coming for you. (That was true decades before the term “toxic masculinity” was invented.) But when you watch “The Invisible Man,” the fearful and cunning new thriller starring Elisabeth Moss as a woman who fights off the cat-and-mouse stalking moves of a man she can’t see (a man who therefore, to everyone else, doesn’t exist), what’s new is the heightened awareness of what it feels like — what it means — to be a woman in trouble whom no one believes. That’s what makes the film an expression of the #MeToo world.
On the level of sheer thriller logistics, “The Invisible Man” has been written and directed, by Leigh Whannell, with a ticklish and suspenseful ingenuity: all the alarming tricks that Adrian (Oliver Jackson-Cohen), the raging sick puppy who Moss’ Cecilia has escaped from, uses to torment and harass and manipulate her. But the dimension that lifts the movie above “Sleeping with the Enemy” or a glossy FX potboiler like Paul Verhoeven’s “Hollow Man” is the dramatic finesse with which it turns Cecilia’s predicament into a potent projection of something that’s now at the heart of the culture. What I wanted to say is that her predicament — she’s under attack but people think she’s crazy, because her abuser is (supposedly) dead and (in reality) invisible — works as a metaphor. But that’s a pesky and pretentious word, one that can make it sound like you’re taking a good night out at the movies and turning it into a New York Times editorial.
Yet part of the power of movies, even popcorn movies, is that they’re encoded with metaphors that charge the experience of watching them with meaning. The issue of women not being believed when they level charges of harassment (or worse) has moved to the forefront of our national conversation. The Harvey Weinstein saga — a cultural earthquake if ever there was one — has had the effect of shaking loose a thousand lies, of blasting through the corporate mechanisms of a thousand cover-ups. The whole Weinstein scandal turned, in certain fundamental ways, on the question of belief; for too long, too many victims of his abuse were scared to come forward in part because they feared, with good reason, that they would not be believed. And the Weinstein trial was all about the issue of belief. The crimes were there, the testimony of the victims was there, but the reason that many sharp-eyed prognosticators expressed concern, right up until the end, that Weinstein might walk relates to the question of whether 12 “ordinary” jurors, faced with an overwhelmingly established pattern of monstrous behavior, would believe what they heard.
When it comes to matters like this, the dismissal of women’s claims has been habitual and institutional. You could also say, though, that it’s something more — that it’s mythological. The reticence to acknowledge (and to act upon the knowledge of) sexually abusive behavior has been, to a degree, woven into the fabric of our society. Yet this is the moment when that dyed-in-the-wool injustice is changing. And part of the power of a movie like “The Invisible Man,” in its diverting and not-too-serious-but-just-serious-enough way, is that it gives the shift in consciousness a workout. That’s part of what makes it cinema. You sit in a theater with a bunch of other people, sharing the drama of this moment and these issues, doing it through the heightened lens of the thriller form and through the potent expression of Elisabeth Moss’s traumatized heroism, and a certain catharsis of awareness takes place. No, the movie isn’t an editorial; it’s a piece of entertainment. But when it’s over, maybe you walk out with your empathy, and your awareness of what’s going on in the world, a bit heightened.
I stress that point because good popular movies, as often as not, tend to have a moral-topical dimension, and when they connect that’s part of the reason why. We’re not buying a ticket just to turn off our brains and “escape.” With a $29 million haul in its opening weekend, “The Invisible Man” feels overwhelmingly like a case of a movie with #MeToo themes that has tapped into the popular imagination. Yet over the last few years, Hollywood’s mostly superficial onscreen attempt to deal with issues of women’s empowerment has resulted in a track record dotted with box-office failure, and this has given rise to a certain knee-jerk misogynistic appraisal of that phenomenon. It goes back, in a way, to the “Ghostbusters” remake, which was greeted with undisguised hostility before it was ever released. And when it turned out to be a so-so movie, it got beaten up on as if its failures, comedic and financial, somehow meant something.
This has been, for Hollywood, a mostly awkward transitional time (just look at the cringe-worthy fake feminist banter of the Oscar telecast, rightly skewered by my colleague Caroline Framke), and the notion of doing gender-flipped remakes of movies that originally featured mostly male casts will probably go down as one of the more desperate expressions of it. I stand by my (mild) affection for “Ocean’s 8,” and I even stand by thinking that “Terminator: Dark Fate” was an invigorating reboot, but the essential point remains: Making movies like that is not a solution. Serving up a sixth “Terminator” film with a Terminatrix heroine, or a less cosmetic “Charlie’s Angels,” shouldn’t wind up penalizing — or stigmatizing — the primal ideal of empowerment and inclusion in motion pictures. The commercial failure of these films means no more than the commercial failure of the reboots of “Hellboy” or “Shaft” did, but you can always find some wag who’s drooling to add it up into a “Get woke, go broke” tautology.
In the context of a movie industry that is only just starting to change, that’s myopic, and it’s also destructive, since it comes down to people grabbing at any excuse out there to avoid putting the experience of women at the center of motion pictures. So people didn’t want to see another “Terminator” film, or another “Charlie’s Angels.” What the success of “The Invisible Man” points to is how much they do want to see a movie that grapples, urgently and entertainingly, with who women are.