This article contains major The Invisible Man spoilers.
The Invisible Man is an excellent horror film packed with shocks and scares and with a fun ending which contains several twists. But it’s possible director Leigh Whannell might have intended to pull the rug out from under the viewer one last time, offering the opportunity for a very different alternative reading of what actually happens to Cecilia.
In the ending we see onscreen, Cecilia (Elisabeth Moss) escapes the institution she’s locked in, is cleared of killing her sister and is able to exact a fitting revenge on her abusive husband Adrian (Oliver Jackson-Cohen) with the help of her friend James (Aldis Hodge) who finally believes she was being tortured by her invisible ex. It’s a triumphant ending for Cecilia that’s pure wish fulfillment.
But sometimes when something feels too good to be true that’s because it is.
By the time Cecilia makes her escape, the audience can’t take much more of this poor woman losing everything and having no way to prove she’s not crazy. The fact that Moss is so good in the role makes it all the more excruciating. It’s right at this point that the film shifts from tense and torturous psychological horror to out and out genre thrills. It’s a very noticeable change, and there could be a reason for that.
Over the years Whannell has proven that he knows his horror tropes and it’s possible he’s giving the audience the option to explore one last one. There’s a device found often in horror which we’ll call the “Owl Creek Bridge ending,” from the 1890 short story “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” by Ambrose Bierce. This story, and its twist, has inspired a number of movies including Jacob’s Ladder and Carnival of Souls and influenced the ending of many more including The Descent and The Escapist.
In “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” a man being executed by hanging from a bridge manages a death-defying escape when the rope snaps, dropping him into the river below. He frees his hands and swims to safety to embark on the long and increasingly strange journey back to his plantation where he looks forward to seeing his wife and family. But just as he arrives, there’s a loud noise, a flash of white, and then silence. His escape wasn’t death-defying after all but a final hallucination that occurred between him falling from the bridge and the rope snapping his neck and killing him.
It’s a good story. And it may have influenced Whannell’s The Invisible Man.
If The Invisible Man has an “Owl Creek Bridge” twist bubbling beneath the surface it surely comes at a major turning point in the film where Cecilia’s life is threatened. Specifically, the moment she slits her wrist while locked up in the facility.
This is the point at which Cecilia is at rock bottom. No one believes her story, she’s been isolated from her support group by the invisible antics of her ex-husband Adrian (who everyone believes is dead), and when she tries to confide in her sister, in a public space for safety, invisible Adrian slits her sister’s throat there and then, making it look like Cecilia herself had done it. Now Cecilia is incarcerated, alone, and with little hope of ever being believed and no one left in her life she can talk to.
With the help of a fountain pen she stole from Adrian’s slimy brother Tom she gouges her wrist length-ways. Our “Owl Creek Bridge” moment begins here. At this point Cecilia, devoid of all hope, bleeds out and dies, while her dying mind creates a fantasy scenario of how she could have got her revenge. A new super-Cecilia is born, this one a kick-ass hero who will clear her own name and save the day.
The fact there are logic holes in Cecilia’s final hallucination don’t really matter – since it’s not real.
It would explain why Tom would ever agree to essentially frame himself for murder and for kidnapping his brother by tying him up. He wouldn’t, but it’s a solution Cecilia can imagine.
It would explain why the formerly incredibly clever and controlled Adrian, whose aim is to gaslight Cecilia, would allow his brother to go on a rampage that legitimizes her concerns, gets her off the hook for murder, and gives her back her support group in the form of James, the one person left in her life she can rely on. He probably wouldn’t do this either, but that is what Cecilia needs to happen to get her life back.
It would certainly explain why she’s dressed to the nines in completely impractical killer heels when she takes revenge on Adrian: of course you’d look your best in your own revenge fantasy. Finally it would explain why after Cecilia “finds” Adrian dead she calls the police and just leaves the scene without waiting for them to arrive despite being all over the CCTV. Boring procedural stuff and giving witness statements isn’t the stuff of death throe hallucinations.
This reading adds an extra tragic layer to a story that manages to talk about big issues in a fun, scary B-movie context. The literal ending, the one we see on screen, is satisfying – it’s a gift to Cecilia and to any victim who struggles to be believed, who wants true closure and to know they are finally truly safe. It allows her to be the hero in her own narrative. It’s the right ending.
But in real life that probably isn’t what would happen. We don’t always come to the cinema to see stark realism, and that’s very likely not what we’d expect from a Blumhouse sci-fi horror movie about a man who can make himself invisible.
In considering this ending both ways we can have our satisfying hero moment where the victim becomes the victor, as well as acknowledging and shining a light on the absolute horror of abuse and gaslighting and how it so frequently doesn’t end in a triumphant “surprise” but something altogether more tragic.