I entered Don’t Breathe with mixed expectations. On the one hand, one website called it one of the scariest movies in two decades. But, it seems, every horror movie can find a website or critic to make a similar claim about it lately. In fact, I feel as if I’ve naively prepared myself up for a mind-blowing classic over and over again, only to be let down by some critic’s one-sentence profession of adoration. And the premise of Don’t Breathe, while certainly original, appeared to have the makings of a thriller more than a horror movie. As it turns out, many of my preconceived notions were correct. Don’t Breathe does, for most of the movie, remind one an awfully lot of a thriller, and it’s only scary insofar as you can refrain from shaking your head too vehemently at the main characters, who, it might be argued, are asking for what they get. My thoughts? It is what it is. The premise was inherently hard to execute successfully, and I was never truly scared while I was watching it. I consider it important to see every horror film that comes out in theaters (since I consider horror blogging my non-professional profession) but if you’re not so adamant, you might be able to skip this one without missing out on anything substantial.
Rocky (Jane Levy) lives with a berating, alcoholic mother, a younger sister, and her mother’s fiancée in Detroit. She makes it a routine to rob rich houses with her boyfriend, Money (Daniel Zovatto) and her friend, Alex (Dylan Minnette). (Fun fact: This is the second horror film that takes place in Detroit that Zovatto plays a role in. Do you know what the first one is….? Yes! It’s It Follows, which, at the risk of being too negative, I’d consider a greater success than this film). Rocky wants to get her little sister out of Detroit and settle down on the California Coast, where they can ride the waves together, but she needs to partake in a significant burglary job to make that happen. When Money hears of a blind Army Vet who’s sitting on a hefty settlement that he got to settle a manslaughter suit when his daughter was hit by a car, they decide to rob his house, with the Army Veteran (Stephen Lang) inside. Unbeknownst to them, he turns out to be highly capable of protecting himself and has no qualms about harming those who intrude on his territory. One might say he’s a little, you know, off. When the group is locked in the house, trying to escape, the situation becomes grim.
Zovatto, who plays such a likable dude in It Follows, is a completely douchey asshat in this film as Money. (I realize that’s not the most eloquent description, but I detested his character so much that it was worth breaking the conventions of polite writing to describe my disdain). To Zovatto’s credit, I consider myself highly skilled in recognizing faces, and I never made the connection between his appearance in this film and It Follows until I googled cast pictures to write this piece. He must be a powerful actor, after all, because he certainly succeeds in making you hate his character, who destroys the houses he robs for the sake of destruction before taking everything valuable from them. It follows, then that the viewer is not heavily invested in whether he lives or dies, which of course decreases the tension of the film (See how I used the name of a film I’m discussing as a transition leading into this sentence? Aren’t I clever?). He’s more than willing to rob a blind old man – he’s the only group member who doesn’t question the action – and he brings a gun to the site of the burglary without telling Rocky and Alex, a gun that (SLIGHT SPOILER) he points at the blind man while threatening him.
So Money can live or die and we (at least I) have no strong feels either way. Rocky and Alex are slightly more likable. Because of Rocky’s home life and her desire to rescue her sister from havoc, she might even be sympathetic. But her motives don’t seem completely clear (we sense that she really likes money, and one key scene underlines her greed if you watch closely), and she never really mentions the possibility of getting a job (we assume she’s graduated from High School.) I mean, I get that she’s trying to crawl out of poverty, and I think it’s dangerous (and wrong) to blame people living in poverty for their condition. But she’s not even trying to live an honest life, and she ultimately steals far more than she needs to move to California with her sister and re-establish herself. The house of the blind man she robs is dilapidated, not wealthy, and as a disabled man, he arguably needs the money from the settlement. Rocky’s actions, then, become less justifiable and more selfish. I chatted with Michael after the film, and the word selfish had been on both of our minds. I think the director tries to place her in the “decent human being” category, but some of her actions are certainly questionable.
Which is to say, I wasn’t invested enough in the characters to fix my attention fast to this film. You end up trapped in a house, being hunted by a blind man, who you tried to rob at gunpoint, and I’m supposed to feel bad for you? What the hell did you think was going to happen if you consistently made a living off ripping people off? And honestly, I think that’s a challenging component of the premise. The premise of the film is undoubtedly original, but, if you keep the premise as it is, how do you build enough sympathy for the affronting characters to make the viewer fear the affronted (aka, the blind man)? The filmmakers tried to do this, but, ultimately, they fell short.
I also thought it was a problematic depiction of blindness. Now, I will wholly admit that I question this critique. I have no problem with calling myself “politically correct,” but I also question the extent to which I go too far and strangle art with extreme analysis. That said, the camera pans on in the vacant, blind eyes of the old man myriad times in a way that makes blindness seem scary – even monstrous. Indeed, the blind man has his own sins, which I’ll hesitate to reveal lest you desire a viewing of the film, but it’s almost as if his blindness was made to seem unattractive and ominous, to make him more creature-like and less human. I don’t harshly condemn the film for whatever it’s insinuating about the army vet’s disability, because I certainly don’t think negative messages about blindness are intended, but I think it’s important to notice and talk about trends like this one, and to consider possible implications.
I wholly applaud an original premise for a horror movie, though, as I note above, most of the film feels more like a thriller than a horror movie. There are some truly disturbing parts of the film that push it more toward the horror genre, that I haven’t even discussed here. There is some attempt to shock the viewer, and that attempted shock doesn’t go unnoticed on my part. I was very unsettled with a few elements of the film. But the shock elements weren’t enough to carry the film toward originality and intrigue without characters who I was sympathetic toward and interested in. While I wasn’t in love with the film, I applaud its ambition. It endeavors to take on a lot and make a complex premise work, and there has to be some merit in that sort of effort. To be sure, it wasn’t a horrible film, but I won’t be returning to the theater for another viewing.