Thursday, September 1, 2016

Blind Spots: A Conversation About Don't Breathe

In August 2016, Sony Pictures had an advanced screening of Fede Alvarez's new horror flick, Don't Breathe. Justin Cummings and Danny McMurray both jumped at the opportunity. Instead of fighting to the death over who got to cover the film – as is tradition among critics – they opted instead to try to co-author a review....and the following is the result. Critics at Large is not responsible for any adverse effects that may result from reading this spoiler-heavy conversation between two semi-sober, horror-loving sickos…

jc: Hi Danny!

dm: Hi Justin!

jc: This is strange. I’ve never done anything like this before.

dm: Same! I make a point of never conversing with people so this is new and uncomfortable territory.

jc: It’s okay, horror films about murderous rapists are what bring us together! To start, tell me about your horror background. We both get jazzed up about these kind of films; what are some of your go-tos?

dm: The first horror film I can remember watching is The Silence of the Lambs. Could we call that a horror movie now? Nonetheless, I was probably 7 and was properly horrified. I had to turn it off. As I got older, the tides turned and horror became probably my favourite genre. The good ones get deep into your head and that's kind of cathartic sometimes. The bad ones are hysterical. Wherever a horror movie sits on the good-to-bad spectrum, I love that anything can happen at any time; horror films consistently boast the least predictable kind of storytelling. I watch them all – Asian horror, zombie films, 90s slashers, smaller indie pieces. My favourite is probably 1974’s Black Christmas. How about you?

jc: Much respect for Black Christmas, what an esoteric choice! You're right on the money with your description of what the genre does best, too – its mandate to surprise and move the audience at all costs is what I think makes it an incredibly pure form of cinema. Ultimately, no matter what the movie is, we're all sitting in that dark room together because we want to experience something that jolts us out of our humdrum lives. For me, the ones that provide the juiciest jolts are things like Suspiria, Ringu, Alien, and even recent fare like It Follows. It's gotta get under my skin for it to work.

dm: Yeah, It Follows was a brilliant little gem! Tight storytelling, great camera work. Lately, I've noticed a trend toward these smaller indie companies telling these very minimalist stories. Small cast, small set, very focused plot. It Follows did that really well. It didn't mess around with the spirit world or demonology or any of these massive plot points with endlessly messy implications. Recently, I found both Green Room and Hush were really great examples of minimalist horror movies. They succeeded by doing less. I think Don't Breathe tried to do what they did...

jc: … and didn’t quite hit the mark?

dm: It was an admirable effort. I don’t know. Did you like it?

jc: I thought I did, at first. If we compare horror films to serialized television for a second, I think a good "bottle episode" can be a really satisfying thing. It's stripped-down storytelling that just throws some characters into a box with one another, no way to escape, and then drops a tarantula into the box. I love that. Like you said, Don't Breathe skips most of the contextual heavy lifting and gives us an incredibly simple setup: three thieves try to rob a paranoid old army veteran who happens to be blind. They think it's a simple in-and-out job, but it turns out the Blind Man (Stephen Lang) is actually a Terminator with severe PTSD. I like that simplicity. But you’re right: that same simplicity ends up hurting the film, when it leaves out detail that would make the proceedings more interesting. And then the film is really, really stupid and lazy as a result.

Stephen Lang as The Blind Man.

dm: I found it wasn’t so much that the film left out detail, in my opinion, but that it included detail without really fleshing out. It left me with so many questions: why did The Blind Man’s settlement money jump from $300k to an even million dollars? How did he manage to manage to abduct his daughter’s killer for months without raising suspicion? Why would a kidnapper and rapist have an alarm system installed in his home in the first place and then neglect to hand over every key required to get into the house in the event of an emergency? That is literally the purpose of an alarm! Most of these plot points were entirely unnecessary and could have been omitted for the sake of a cleaner story but Alvarez and Sayagues left all these loose ends hanging everywhere. And, you know, I would have been more willing to suspend my disbelief if Don’t Breathe had done something novel in terms of gore or special effects but the violence was all pretty standard—certainly nothing to write home about!

jc: I couldn’t agree more. The same way you expect a rom-com to have a meet-cute, I expect my slashers to, you know, slash! When I heard that Don't Breathe was made by the same team that did the Evil Dead remake in 2013, the bar was set pretty high in my mind for the kind of gore I was expecting. I understand that they weren't toying with a demonic power in this film – it was just one crazy old soldier with a couple of dumb amateur teen-thieves – but even then, I found myself disappointed at the lack of viscera on display. They do a great job of foreshadowing all the locales in Blindo's house – his creepy basement, the gun strapped under his bed, his workshop full of tools – which whisper promises of lots of juicy violence to come. And violence does come, but it's hardly juicy. They cut away from it almost every time! In fact, the one time they didn't cut away, and went whole hog on a true "holy shit" moment, was the moment they lost me...

dm: I feel like I know what moment you’re talking about.

jc: Yep.

dm: Everyone’s favourite scene! So turkey baster insemination is where you checked out, eh?

jc: See, I always root for the bad guy in slashers. Maybe that makes me a sicko, I don't know. Ever since Friday the 13th – hell, even Psycho – I felt that the filmmakers always added at least a tiny, subtle element of disdain for their "heroes" in this type of movie. You're never allowed to fully root for the people being killed off; they're always rude or disrespectful or ignorant or just generally kind of dumb. It's a way for the filmmakers to let you off the hook for enjoying watching them get eviscerated, you know what I mean? So I always just skipped right past the "oh I'm supposed to identify with these idiots" part and started cheering for Jason Voorhees. And I had a great time doing that with Don't Breathe (especially because of how deeply unlikeable the main characters are)... but then they took that away from me, too!

Jane Levy, Dylan Minnette and Daniel Zovatto in Don't Breathe.

dm: Yeah, I’m with you. I didn’t find the main characters quite so unlikeable but, ultimately, how could you not sympathize with Lang's Blind Man? Not only was it a great performance – I somehow completely bought that Lang was both blind and simultaneously a badass – but these kids broke into his house to rob him of the settlement money from his daughter's accidental death. He's just minding his own business, living with a dog, playing videos of his dead kid and wallowing in misery, and then Don’t Breathe throws us for a loop with that basement scene. Rooting for the "bad guy" felt like the exact opposite of what the film wanted from us, so obviously I rooted right along with you until that point. I guess that's what we get for thinking we're smarter than the film.

jc: I know, screw us for wanting to have some fun with our horror movie experience, right? Here I am, totally on board with this brave American's righteous (and fully legal) crusade to rid his property of a bunch of slack-jawed teens, and then they have to go and make him a creepy disgusting rapist who wants to rebirth his child by imprisoning and forcibly inseminating the woman charged with his daughter's manslaughter. Like, come on. Who am I supposed to root for now?

dm: I remember walking out of the theatre, recalling that scene where Lang was hovering over Jane Levy's character, Rocky, brandishing that turkey baster full of fluids and weird bits of hair, telling her that it's "only nine months" and then she can have her body back, and I was thinking about how I wanted to read that as a really dark allegory for marriage: pretty young girl dreams of a better life, finds herself in a house with a man whose assets offer her the means to live the life she aspires toward, and then, next thing she knows, he's got her chained up and is demanding a baby from her, telling her she can have her autonomy back after giving birth. I got a kick out of it (but maybe that says more about me than about the film). Whatever the case, Jane Levy was fantastic and her absolute horror in that scene felt totally genuine. Let's not forget how she retaliated against the Blind Man when she got loose. I still can't believe they did that. It was probably the only truly shocking moment in the movie… but it was worth it.

jc: I can't disagree with that! I gotta give Alvarez kudos. I just wish there were more of those moments. This is a film that should have been chock full of true hand-over-mouth imagery (especially coming from the creators of that heinously gut-crunching Evil Dead remake). Unfortunately, like you said, there isn't much more about his work that stands out here. He does a good job with his cast – particularly Jane Levy (reappearing from that same Evil Dead remake), who makes a terrifically expressive Final Girl, and Stephen Lang who, despite what the script does to him, is absolutely magnetic and terrifying – but I felt the direction was pretty nondescript. The film didn't have much of a sense of style or identity to me, or show off any real technical chops, apart from some great sound design. Were there any sequences that stood out to you?

Jane Levy in night vision scene.

dm: I actually really enjoyed the night vision scene in the basement. While, on the one hand, the use of night vision kind of broke the fourth wall by reminding us that there was a camera present, I thought it was a clever way to showcase the Blind Man in his element. From what I understand, the actors were wearing contacts that both restricted their vision and made their pupils appear super dilated, so their blind fumbling was authentic and it showed. Allegedly other theatres laughed during this scene! I don't understand that; I thought it was fresh and innovative.

jc: I think that’s probably just proof that we’re not the only freaks out there, Danny.

dm: If that’s all I’m taking from this movie, then that’s not so bad!

jc: There really wasn’t much to take, though, was there? This is a movie that spoils its own ending in its cold opening, showing us explicitly at the outset that Final Girl is going to be the only survivor – and thereby robbing us of the chance to wonder who’s going to make it. This is a movie where the only thing approaching character development is Rocky’s idiotic “ladybug motif”, that’s so forced it made my teeth hurt from grinding them together so hard. I feel like Alvarez whiffed on so many opportunities for fun sequences and strong imagery, too. There’s a scene where the Blind Man sniffs out a shoe from across the room, but his sense of smell never again comes into play (except when it’s ignored entirely, like all the time spent at the outset showing our characters as heavy smokers and then having the Blind Man come within six inches of them and not even twitch a nostril). There are so many scenes where the characters are forced to stay quiet to avoid him, but it’s rarely anything more than them standing stock still while he fumbles around – why not engineer some situations that made it really difficult for them to stay quiet (like the cliché example of dropping bugs down their shirts)? Why not fill his house with traps and pitfalls that create noise, like bells that ring when doors are opened and that sort of thing, so the thieves could inadvertently set them off? Not only would that better represent the living space of a real blind person – noise-creating gadgets, unconventional furniture layout, no lights, etc – but it would serve up the kind of ingenious horror scenarios you need if you want a boxed-in story like this to really sing.

dm: I absolutely agree. I was both creeped out and confused by The Blind Man’s supernatural skill for shoe-smelling and it never occurred to me that these kids were smoking a joint on their way into the house; at that point, The Blind Man should have been able to smell them even if he had a Voldemort nose and hay fever. I guess I was more distracted by the burning question of why novice burglars would want to be high for a B&E. That’s basically a microcosm of how I felt about the film overall: something that could have been clever was ruined by extraneous details. While Don't Breathe had some redeeming features including well-thought out sound design, the use of night vision, and that truly revolting twist in the film's final act, one of the most terrifying features of a truly good horror movie for me is when all the pieces of the puzzle finally fit together at the end, and that didn’t happen here. And maybe I would have been a little more forgiving but the truth is that I also had a big issue with seeing yet another film that typecasts Detroit as "spooky scary povertyville." Putting aside the fact that Detroit is a real place, where actual people are still trying to live, and that reducing their lives to a backdrop for a so-so horror film could be considered insensitive (spoiler: it is), it's also just lazy film-making. Less lazy are the imaginative leaps Alvarez must have taken to even conceive of making film using an all-white cast that's set in a city where only 10% of the population is white. Don’t Breathe’s ethical dubiousness was the straw that broke this camel’s back.

jc: I admit I hadn’t even considered that. I can’t say, having never been there, I nurse quite the same burning love for Detroit that you clearly do, but I think you make a good point. Overall, I think we feel the same way about Don’t Breathe. Its disappointing lack of blood n' guts, the annoying way it treated its villain, and its countless ill-conceived script elements unfortunately keep me from coming down in its defense. (Alvarez is okay with the kidnapping and rape of a human being, but doesn’t have the balls to let a vicious dog be killed? Blindo doesn’t call the cops on the thieves because he can’t let them discover his rape dungeon, but he has a security system that automatically calls them? What?) While it had enough functional cinematic competence to sustain me through its long periods of silent tension, I felt it had no sense of flash or style, and very little inventiveness to offer. There are a few neat reversals and twists that kept the film from feeling predictable (no mean feat with such a simple setup) but I think they detracted from the overall impact – you think someone is gonna die, and they don't; you think you can root for Blindo, but you can't, etc. I think it's a functional, forgettable, very dumb horror flick that most people will probably enjoy much more than two snobs like us did. So, final rating? I don’t know how this works, do we do a rating?

dm: All in all I would give Don’t Breathe two turkey basters out of five.

jc: Haha! I’ll drink to that!

dm: As long as it’s not from the baster.

– Justin Cummings is a writer, blogger, playwright, and graduate of Queen's University's English Language & Literature program. He has been an avid film buff, gamer, and industry commentator since his childhood cinema first installed an arcade. He is currently helping to make awesome games at Ubisoft Toronto, and continues to pursue a career in professional criticism.

– Danny McMurray has a B.A. in English Language and Literature with a minor in Anthropology from the University of Western Ontario. She is particularly enthusiastic about science fiction, horror movies, feminism, video games, books, opera, and good espresso – all of which she can find in spades in her home base of Toronto, Ontario.

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