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Don’t Breathe

August 26, 2016
Don't Breathe

For a movie whose very title calls for silence, Don’t Breathe sure draws a chatty audience. I can’t really lay that at the feet of Evil Dead director Fede Alvarez, though, but I spent most of the tight, 88-minute running time thinking about how the behavior of audiences so often gives the lie to the old saw that the communal movie-watching experience is somehow inherently superior to watching in the privacy and comfort of one’s own home.

As to Don’t Breathe itself, Alvarez and co-writer Rodo Sayagues have done much better this time around, partly because they’re not trying to put their own fingerprints all over a beloved classic. It’s one of the most efficiently-constructed horror flicks I’ve seen in a long time, with no shot going to waste.

The basic premise is simple enough. Three young people in the present-day ruins of Detroit have taken to robbing houses. Alex (Dylan Minnette) gets access to the files from his father’s security company, which gets backup keys and alarm passcodes to get them in the door. He urges caution and tries to minimize their legal liability, but Money (Daniel Zovatto) wants bigger scores, and Rocky (Jane Levy) wants to make enough to move to California with her daughter.

So when Money turns up a story about a blinded army veteran (Stephen Lang) sitting on six figures in cash in the middle of an otherwise deserted neighborhood, he and Rocky want to go for it. Alex doesn’t like it, but eventually he comes along. An early steadicam shot helps cement the geography of the house, with particular emphasis on some items that will surely come back later: a hammer; a bell; a bolted door; a revolver; the outline on a wall where a cross used to hang.

Of course it’s nowhere near as easy as it seems, and Alex bails. Money’s “chloroform bomb” doesn’t work as planned, and the Blind Man — the only name he ever gets — comes down to investigate the noise. He quickly gets the drop on Money while Rocky hides. Alex comes back to save her, only to get trapped inside as the Blind Man closes off the exits with military efficiency. The two must find a way to escape the house while avoiding a man who, despite his handicap, is still deadlier than either of them.

The Blind Man also makes for a great character in his own right. The money they’re trying to steal was the settlement from when little rich girl killed his daughter in an accident. We get plenty of subtle touches that show how her loss has tortured him, as well as some pretty obvious suggestions about how twisted he has become as a result.

All in all, Don’t Breathe offers a solidly plotted and paced thriller that makes good use of its high-concept premise. But I do want to loop back to the audience’s reactions, and in order to do that I’m going to have to spoil some of the later scenes a bit. So if you want to go in cold, now’s the time to leave.

Everyone gone who want to avoid spoilers? good.

So, the Blind Man does eventually capture Rocky, and he reveals that he wants nothing so much as a child to replace the one that was taken from him. And so he’s going to keep her captive until she gives him one. He prepares a turkey baster, claiming this form of insemination wouldn’t be rape. To be fair, I don’t think Alvarez and Sayagues believe his justifications, and neither did the audience. But as he approached Rocky, there was a wave of laughter and applause; the audience was excited at the idea that they were about to see a woman being violated like this.

It was much the same voyeurism that turned my stomach at Compliance, although less explicitly directed by the movie itself. And while I don’t think that the filmmakers can be held directly responsible for the reactions of their audience, I’m not sure that the break is completely clean either. As Truffaut pointed out, it’s very difficult to portray violence in cinema and not end up glamorizing it to some extent. Even if they hadn’t worked to develop a warped sympathy for the villain, depicting sexual violence like this can’t help but draw an uncritical audience in.

Of course I don’t believe that everyone around me in the dark was laughing and clapping along, but enough of them were that I wouldn’t have been able to pick out who was and was not. And of those who were, I don’t believe all of them would have done the same if it weren’t “just a movie”, and even much less that they would have actively participated, given the opportunity. But I honestly don’t know who would or would not.

Surely the vast majority of the people around me were not the sort of sadists who would assault someone like this. But to join in the voyeuristic excitement does mean participating on some level in that sadism, and provides cover for those few who actually would — or do — carry it out in real life. The idea that I was surrounded by people who would cheer an imminent rape was scarier than any shock on the screen. And I’m not even likely to be the victim of such an assault; if I were a woman seeing this movie with a partner who joined in that wave of applause, I’d start looking for the nearest exit and fast.

Can this reaction be laid at the filmmakers’ feet? maybe not entirely. But Alvarez hasn’t exactly gone out of his way to make the prospect of Rocky’s rape less exciting and more sickening to an audience. Don’t Breathe is, in its way, part of the torture-porn subgenre of horror, and this assault is a climactic moment in the movie. It’s not in his interest to do anything but play into his audience’s prurient excitement. Fair or not, this was a severely off-putting sequence in an otherwise excellently-constructed story.

Worth It: if you can get past the content of that one scene, yes.
Bechdel-Wallace Test: pass.

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