2020 had undeniably been a thankless year for cinema with most of us forced into our homes, unable to appreciate the bright light inside the dark theatre. But while the virus wreaked havoc, the year did bring us some interesting female-driven films: DC fans got their first all-female superhero team-up in Birds Of Prey, Eliza Hitman’s Never Really Sometimes Always was a Sundance hit, and then there were two other films that beautifully snuck in feminist themes in what were otherwise conventional genre exercises. Both The Invisible Man and Swallow are classified as psychological thrillers, even though the Leigh Whannell-directed film serves as an updated take on an already established horror property. But watching them back-to-back, I noticed how identical the themes and the approach were. One could almost mistake The Invisible Man to be a direct sequel to Swallow: the ending of the latter is literally the opening of the former. Both these films deal with toxic masculinity and society’s devaluation of a woman’s control over her body.
Swallow has characters that exist in a certain grey area, where a happily married housewife named Hunter (Haley Bennett gives an Oscar-worthy performance) develops pica, a real medical condition where the patient ha an irresistible urge to ingest inedible objects and material. Director Carlo Mirabella-Davis displays the body horror in full capacity, as Hunter gulps down nails, pebbles and what not; posing a threat for her unborn baby, effectively making the viewing experience squirm-inducing. But the film is disturbing not just because of the grating visuals but in how it tricks us in where to invest our sympathy. We pity the husband Richie for the most part as Hunter struggles to curb her deviant behaviour, only to later see him as the spineless tyrant who attempts to control her body just for the sake of family legacy. Hunter’s own terrifying family history is what initially seems to be the cause for her condition and Richie’s viewpoint is understandable. But as the director expresses to us in the subtle and elegant final scene, it’s never the right of the men to decide what women should or should not do with her body. This is evidently a response to the recent politically charged debates on US anti-abortion laws that upheld religious beliefs over a woman’s freedom.
The Invisible Man is a lot more implicit with its messaging. Yet again, the impending birth of a child turns out to be the major conflict. But Cecilia (Elisabeth Moss can do no wrong) is already fearful of her abusive boyfriend, a crazed scientist who then becomes invisible to stalk and terrorise her. Here the invisibility could be seen as a metaphor for his alpha male mentality and privilege. He successfully misuses his invention to make a woman who defied his orders feel miserable and hopeless without coming under society’s scrutiny. Society remains blind to his inhumane acts, literally and figuratively (notice the poster tagline: “What you can’t see can hurt you”). The morality of the film isn’t as skewed as Swallow, it’s established early on that Cecilia is in the right. But where The Invisible Man is successful is that even without the context, one could appreciate it just as a fun thriller. Whannell, who previously directed horror films like Saw, Insidious 3 and Upgrade, brings some of his best work in the adrenaline-pumping action sequences that never feel cheap despite the miniscule 7 million-dollar budget. It gives you enough emotional highs without ever sacrificing or diluting its intent.
Movies like these makes me wonder why our films are so hell bent on hitting us over the head to ‘educate’ us on the very same issues. Despite being made by male filmmakers, both these films never feel contrived in their feminist perspective or content to be ho-hum female empowerment stories. It’s up to the viewer to interpret them while they’re being entertained.