Of all the original classic movie monsters institutionalized by Universal in the 1930s, the least loved or revived is the Invisible Man — perhaps because his plight is inherently a less-than-ideally-cinematic one, more interesting in psychological than action or suspense terms. The last notable big-screen attempt, Paul Verhoeven’s 2000 Hollywood swansong “Hollow Man,” took a predictably blunt, crass approach to upping the concept’s sex-and-violence potential.
Going in the opposite direction is “The Unseen,” about a loner whose disappearing act is metaphorical as much as it is literal, where the latter is ultimately the least successful in what’s otherwise a nicely crafted if not entirely satisfying drama of a man struggling to retain any connection to human society. But it’s that fantastical element which will give writer-director Geoff Redknap’s Canadian debut feature the moderate commercial viability it wouldn’t have had as a straightforward portrait of individual isolation within an already depressed rural British Columbia setting.
Gruff, stoic Bob (Aden Young) is leading a willfully solitary existence, having left his family eight years earlier for reasons he never explained, and which we only gradually begin to understand. He works at a lumber mill and calls a trailer home, living the kind of dead-end life familiar from such first-wave Canadian features as “Goin’ Down the Road” and “Paperback Hero” — except while those films’ protagonists yearned for bigger, better things, Bob cuts himself off as much as he can even from the meager social offerings of this dying single-industry hamlet.
He’s all bundled up, mentally as well as physically. But that’s not simply due to a hermit’s temperament: Bob covers himself from head to toe to fingertips, remaining arm’s length from people as well, because he suffers from an inexplicable secret condition that would horrify others. And while H.G. Wells’ original “The Invisible Man” and most characters inspired by him tended to disappear whole in one neat wipe, Bob is going away one random body section and one grisly layer at a time. So the parts he hides from view aren’t just “absent,” but sometimes blackened, bloody, or even exposing internal organs.
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No wonder he abandoned his onetime pro hockey career, as well as his wife and child. But now-teenaged daughter Eva (Julia Sarah Stone) is acting out sufficiently that ex-spouse Darlene (Camille Sutherland) breaks a long silence, pleading with him to intervene. His awkward reappearance in their lives is combined with an equally reluctant-but-necessary errand for dangerous local drug supplier Crisby (Ben Cotton). That obligation grows problematic when Bob is waylaid by the discovery that Eva is missing: She hasn’t returned from an ill-advised expedition with friends into a shuttered part of a mental institution where Bob’s own father was once housed, and presumably died.
At heart a story of familiar working-class dysfunction and economic hopelessness, “The Unseen” isn’t always sure how to fit its novel fantasy plot hook into that realistic context. Things get a little muddled, particularly in an underdeveloped tangent involving a Chinatown herbal-medicine business, and there’s some mannered dialogue that pushes the macho “man of few words” aesthetic close to literary self-parody. Redknap is a special makeup effects veteran whose work has been seen in numerous TV series (“The X-Files,” “Supernatural”) as well as features (“Deadpool,” “The Cabin in the Woods”). His restraint in that department here is admirable as well as somewhat surprising. Still, things get a bit silly when we finally see just how little of the rapidly-deteriorating Bob is left, at the same time we’re expected to swallow his steely resolve in the new role of Heroic Dad.
Our hard-drinking protagonist’s unique hidden problem at times seems to be an elaborate metaphor for the toll that more prosaic issues wreak on both immediate sufferers and their loved ones. Indeed, it’s the least fantastical aspects that largely dominate here, and are the film’s core strength. “The Unseen” is ultimately middling as a quasi-sci-fi/horror suspense drama, but it has authentic grit as a story about one man’s struggle with alcoholism and depression. Young is impressive as a protagonist who might well have been most comfortable as a lumberjack a century ago, when there was less northwestern B.C. society to withdraw from. His gravity seems of a piece with the handsome, somber imagery of Stephen Maier’s widescreen location lensing; other tech/design contributions support the feature’s unhurried but intriguing atmospherics. Subsidiary roles are well-cast and executed, though Stone is perhaps even more of a deer-in-headlights blank slate than her troubled-adolescent figure requires.