Fade Away and Radiate: ‘The Unseen’

There have been a few movies about invisible men since Claude Rains peeled layers of gauze off his face back in 1933, but it isn’t a concept many filmmakers have returned to or riffed on. Paul Verhoeven’s Hollow Man approached it with a hefty dose of leering brutality. Memoirs of an Invisible Man, one of the few John Carpenter missteps, slapped Chevy Chase into the land of the transparent with disappointing results. There was even see-through Steve Guttenberg in 1983’s 3-D dud, The Man Who Wasn’t There. But there’s life in the venerable old sub-genre yet. Writer/director Geoff Redknap’s take on the idea, The Unseen, turns the trope upside down by dissecting the intellectual concept of invisibility on physical, emotional, and societal levels. It’s a smart move, an interesting viewpoint, and a film of understated excellence.

Bob Langmore, the main character in The Unseen, has a few problems. His father rejected him as a child, and those abandonment issues remain unresolved. That event has dictated his behavior as an adult; Bob bailed on his marriage, leaving his daughter, Eva, behind. Bob works a dead-end job at a local lumber mill, not making enough money to get by. He’s got a self-destructive streak a mile wide, isolating himself as much as he can. The acquaintances he does have are shifty, trafficking in drugs, women, and poaching. There’s nothing wrong with going nowhere, and Bob is certainly going nowhere fast. It is his choice. Something inexplicable is happening to Bob, something that drives him to sink into the underground at the fringes of society. Bob is becoming invisible.

Movies about invisibility often follow the same roadmap. Through some element of mad science, usually a bubbling serum of some kind, some poor schmuck finds himself fading away, their movements dictated by awful visual effects. Coffee cups float through the air. Doors open and close by themselves. Most of these stories end up being a low form of vaudeville trickery, glorified magic tricks meant to provoke ooh’s and ahh’s from the audience. The illusion is cool for a moment, but it gets old fast.

The Unseen, for the most part, avoids those hoary pitfalls. There is no dank laboratory with test tubes and a Jacob’s Ladder zapping away in the background. Bob doesn’t feel any exaggerated sense of invincibility or hatch some cockamamie egomaniacal plan to steal millions of dollars worth of jewelry. He doesn’t embrace his newfound lack of substance. Becoming invisible hurts. There is no science, only physical pain which is amplified by the mental distress of Bob’s attempts to battle his personal demons. It’s the well-constructed, slow burn story of a guy desperately trying to get his act together. He needs to reconnect with his estranged daughter. The choices Bob has made in his life have had disastrous effects. Every step forward is a side-stagger, and the fact that his physical body is slowly drifting into the æther limits his ability to rejoin society.

Filmed in the dim, grimy desolation of winter in British Columbia, The Unseen is at its best when it hones in on the psyches of its characters. They are people consigned to the sharp edges, living without financial privilege or the respect of their peers. They are ghosts who don’t know they’re dead, repeating motions and movements that used to have meaning. Bob’s affliction echoes his place in this world. He is a guy others ignore, a forgettable face, a passive object of derision and ridicule. It isn’t until he begins to become invisible that he begins to rediscover his self-worth.

As Bob, Aden Young carries himself as a shuffling wreck, all hunched shoulders and internalized suffering, a man who has forgotten how to maintain eye contact. He gives a powerful performance, a masterwork of awkward desperation. It’s hard to take your eyes off of Young, even when you can’t see him. Julia Sarah Stone plays his daughter, Eva, and her character is a compassionate foil for Bob. She seeks answers of her own, and her tentative attempts to relate to her father are subtle and affecting.

The Unseen may ostensibly be about invisibility in a lurid pulp fiction fashion, but it is also an effective study of how some people disappear from their own lives. The allegory is not heavy-handed, but deftly woven throughout the script. There’s some real emotional resonance in this movie, making The Unseen a small, satisfying piece of character-driven horror cinema.

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