HEADS UP – THERE BE DON’T BREATHE SPOILERS HERE
Here’s the Cliff’sNotes version of Don’t Breathe: Detroit sucks. An entire generation in the town is being left behind. As such, when three young, small time robbers in the area – Alex (Dylan Minnette), Rocky (Jane Levy) and Money (Daniel Zovatto) – get word that a blind war veteran (Stephen Lang) might be sitting on a lucrative court settlement related to the death of his daughter they see it as an easy score and clear ticket to a better life. Predictably, though, the robbery doesn’t go according to plan because a blind war veteran is still, well, a war veteran with stunning strength and considerable survival skills. Trapped in his house, the trio of wayward teens try not to make any noise while plotting their escape. Sometimes their breathing gives them away. Other times not so much. But, damn, that blind dude is seriously scary. The end.
Sounds pretty good, right? While most of Hollywood is pre-occupied with spending hundreds and hundreds of millions just to make millions, little movies like Don’t Breathe keep finding their way through the cracks, making the most of microbudgets by minimizing the number of people in the cast and locations used. This is the golden age of the one-house-movie wonders. As such, Don’t Breathe isn’t even the best home-invasion thriller centered around a person with a disability I saw this week. That honor goes to Netflix’s Hush. Still, Don’t Breathe is more than good for grip-the-edge-of-your-seat tension with a couple of genuine scares along the way.
But that wasn’t enough for writer-director Fede Alvarez, who I only know from his Evil Dead remake. In his hands, there is more to Don’t Breathe than a general “it’s like that type of movie you’ve already seen a bunch of times except this time the guy is blind” hook. It frequently subverts genre expectations (e.g., there’s a mean dog that doesn’t die) and keeps you guessing (e.g, the blind man keeps popping up where you’d least expect him to), but more intriguingly it’s also secretly building to two major twists, both of which shock and awe before inducing a skeptical, “Wait, what the fuck?”
Vanity Fair explained the twists in more detail:
While Alvarez manages to sustain tension from beginning to end, he does veer into some unfortunately ridiculous territory when Rocky and Alex learn that the blind man has been keeping his daughter’s (accidental) killer hostage—and, later, that he’s impregnated her with frozen sperm via a turkey baster, which he also plans to use on Rocky. The first revelation is surprising, but believable; the second one, though, is a step too far.
Squirmy laughter erupted through an early screening’s audience during a close-up shot of the semen, and as the man lumbered over to Rocky, cutting through her clothing with scissors. But whatever thrills some found in the gag, its tone didn’t match the film’s otherwise subdued, ominous approach. Not to mention the questions it prompted: When did this man started storing his sperm? How much time has he spent studying the finer points of ovulation cycles? How many girls Rocky’s age still wander around without birth control? Thankfully, Rocky never falls victim after all: Alex shows up to save the day, resurrected thanks to a clever camera trick that made it look like he’d died earlier
I saw the film with WeMinoredInFilm co-founder Julianne, who now works as a nurse, and she was quick to explain all of the problems with the medical logic of the blind man’s plan (I remember her using the phrase “pre-natal vitamins” among many others). Also, we weren’t entirely clear on whether or not the blind man had similarly used this turkey baster on his daughter’s killer. He talks about not being a rapist, and seemed to imply he had sex with the other girl in exchange for promising to release her after carrying his baby to term. With Rocky, his impatience and frustration led him to behave more forcefully. However, if we misread the scene, and he did indeed use the turkey baster on the other girl that would at least explain why he has everything ready to go so quickly for Rocky.
Either way, it is a scene clearly written by a man, and is oddly the second time now Fede Alvarez has depicted a rape or almost-rape of some sort of Jane Levy on screen, the first coming in Evil Dead:
The difference is the tree rape sequence in Evil Dead was a slightly tamer recreation of the notoriously troubling rape sequence in the Sam Raimi original, and in Alvarez’s defense his version of Evil Dead would have gotten by without that scene if not for the overruling vote from one of the remake’s producers. This turkey baster thing in Don’t Breathe, though? That’s all Alvarez, and here’s the explanation he offered when Collider asked what he meant to accomplish with the scene:
Antagonists or villains in movies always go fter power somehow. There’s always something powerful in the story and they want that. And I think being a father myself, having had a kid a couple of years ago, and seeing what a woman can do – I gave my wife this thing, and she gave me back a person – it’s insane. It’s really one of those wonders of the world. A woman’s ability to create life is such a powerful thing, and that’s what he wants. The villain in our movie wants to have a daughter again. That was the best thing to ever happen to him, and he’s dying to have that happen again in his life which is so lonely. So, this girl has the ability to do that for him, and he’ll go for it. It’s one of those things I can’t believe hasn’t been done before in movies. I mean she’s right there. All he has to do is impregnate her, and she will give him a person. It’s insane, and I was fascinated by it and wanted to put in my movie.
This all surely leads to debates over the gender politics of the scene, film and entire genre, but to me the bigger question is whether or not Don’t Breathe actually needed any twists at all. Must the blind man have any more power-based motivation than simply the desire to retrieve the insane amount of money Rocky has stolen from his safe?
You can argue Alvarez and the actors simply couldn’t stretch this premise out over a full-length film without some bombshell revelations about the blind man changing the playing field along the way, but watch Hush for proof that a home-invasion thriller can quite capably get by on just well-made thrills and hero vs. villain conflict. A cat-and-mouse game in which the mouse (or cat) is deaf, but kind of badass is all you needed there. Don’t Breathe could have done the same, substituting blindness for deafness. The lack of scandalous subplots could have freed up Alvarez and team to make better cinematic use of the film’s premise and title, perhaps give us more than one or two moments of breathing as the thing to give a victim away.
Don’t Breathe could have simply been a home invasion gone wrong with a progression of increasingly tense moments as the would-be robbers turn from predator to prey and narrowly avoid certain death until the inevitable showdown. If you want to throw in some social commentary along the way, turn this into a battle of God’s forgotten children in an era overrun by the one-percenters, fine, why not. Throw some startling “Detroit’s like a third world country now” visuals at us just like It Follows:
There didn’t need to be a girl locked up in the blind man’s basement, and even if there did, even if you wanted to turn him into a morally compromised figure as a way to even the moral playing field among the characters the girl didn’t need to be pregnant with his child. As Vanity Fair said, “The first revelation is surprising, but believable; the second one, though, is a step too far.”
That’s not to say the twists ruin the film. With them, it is still a capably made thriller with memorable performances from Levy, Lang and Minnette. To the overly analytical among us, it even works as not only one of the year’s finest horror offerings but also one of the year’s better social allegories. However, without the twists I think I would have actually liked and admired Don’t Breathe more.