This review may contain spoilers. I can handle the truth.
Andrew Cochran’s review published on Letterboxd:
This review may contain spoilers.
Every so often I see a film that compels me to write a long form article about what I’ve seen. One such example is my review of David Lynch’s INLAND EMPIRE, which you can find by following this link: letterboxd.com/adcochran/film/inland-empire/ . I realize that such a lengthy response to a film can be an arduous read, and it was my aim not to present a wall of text. In creating a more readable piece, I’ve broken up my thoughts into four substantive sections with a fifth section as a conclusion. If you read this, I want to thank you in advance. I’d love to hear from you if whether you manage to get through the whole thing or simply pick a part to read. It is my hope that, if you do the latter, you would be compelled to read the whole damn thing.
With that out of the way, I encourage you to pick up a cup or glass of your favorite beverage and get right into it. Happy reading!
I. STANDING OUT FROM THE CROWD
There were many moments and/or cinematic elements that I rather enjoyed in this film. I thought the cinematography worked well most of the time. There are more than a couple of extraneous shots that downplay the intelligence of the viewer—the hammer, the gun under the bed, the locks—but overall I found the camerawork to be quite enjoyable. I think the concept is an interesting one; it reminded me a lot of the premise of HUSH, but in reverse. To place the viewer somewhere between the perspectives of both the blind man and the three burglars, the cinematographer used shallow focus and a lot of tracking medium shots to disorient the viewer, and to make the space in which the conflict unfolds seem difficult to understand; after all, the terrain of the house factors directly into both the ease by which the blind man hunts his prey and the difficulty the burglars experience in what should be a fairly easy, straightforward heist.
In this regard, DON’T BREATHE is something of a small triumph. The film plays down the tropes we’ve come to expect from the genre, even though it is guilty of playing into some of them (yes, there are jump scares, visual giveaways, and body horror elements); yet, at the same time, the first half of the film stands apart from the thrillers that have become the mainstream (I’m thinking specifically about films such as THE CONJURING, INSIDIOUS, and the like). DON’T BREATHE takes its time where other films don’t; it downplays the score to a large extent and, rather, focuses on sound engineering where other films do not.
Additionally, Alvarez deployed some interesting filming techniques. I, and most likely everyone else who saw the film, enjoyed the hell out of the scene that was shot in infrared. I believe there was a scene like that in SICARIO, but I think this film handled that much better (this may be blasphemous, but I really hated that film).
This, essentially, is the extent of my praise of the film, however; and although this may seem like a short list, I think these are incredibly important touchstones. DON’T BREATHE, on a technical level, achieves what many genre films do not; and, for these aspects alone, I praise the hell out of this film. If the story and some of the less obvious nuts and bolts were as tightly crafted, this might rank among my favorite horror films of the last 16 years.
II. SUSPENSION OF DISBELIEF
With my compliments out of the way, I will now segue into my chief complaints with the film. There are a couple of overarching problems I see with the film regarding the suspension of disbelief, as the title indicates. Although film does not have to adhere to reality in every regard, the act of making the audience suspend disbelief, especially when the film tries to ground itself in reality—that is, when a genre film such as this attempts to tell a story that involves little to no paranormal elements (e.g. no ghosts, no demons, no psychological effects that augment the realities of the characters involved in the central conflict)—the suspension of disbelief, I argue, inherently detracts from the story’s overall effectiveness. The way I see this film, there are two main problems with the central situation of the film: one involves the blind man, the other involves the focalizing character, Rocky.
The blind man, we learn, is hiding a woman in his basement. He is doing so because the woman killed his daughter in a motor vehicle accident. Due to the trauma he sustained while in a military excursion, I can understand that his thinking may not be clear, and his moral compass may be, and indeed is, as we learn, even less clear. That said, I cannot imagine why he would risk being caught with a woman in his basement. The major risk he takes here is his home alert system. In the event that his alert system was engaged—whether on purpose or by accident—the police would show up at his house; and, if they suspected he was being dishonest or was hiding something, the authorities would have probably cause to search the house. And, in the event they did so, they would have probable cause to ask what lay beyond a locked door. This would invariably lead to the police searching the basement, especially if they heard the cries of a female from within. This, to me, is incredibly unreasonable, and therefore incredibly unlikely. I saw this as an enormous oversight in the creation of the narrative.
Rocky, on the other hand, has a different problem. She is living in Detroit, which is rife with poverty and by extension exploitation, both on and off the home front. Rocky has, what she thinks are, Big Dreams of moving to the West Coast. Her only ties to Michigan seem to be a) her boyfriend, and b) Diddy (her younger sister?). The problem, here, is that her boyfriend wants and plans to leave with Rocky to live in California, and she already has the consent of Diddy to move as well (although I don’t know how she could do so if Diddy is her sister—even bearing in mind the resolution of the story, I believe her mother could charge her with kidnapping. If Diddy is her child, however, I suppose there are no real problems moving her across state lines). That said, perceived economic factors hinder her from moving. Rocky feels as though she is not able to move away from Detroit because she does not have the proper funds, despite the fact that she routinely robs rich people who live in Detroit, one of the most notoriously poor cities in America. Could she not simply rob homes across America while she made her way to California? Sure, the plot tells us that Alex’s father’s job is what enables these burglars to steal from the affluent with relative ease, but could they not do the same with people who may have less but do not have alert systems? The answer is undoubtedly yes. Plus, California (as I write this) is the sixth largest economy in the world. Surely she could either a) rob people there, or b) find decent work, which she seems to want to do anyway.
These may seem like nit-picky points, but, again, they represent some of the picture’s largest flaws. The conflict is artificial, the characters are not necessarily sympathetic, likable, or compelling (this is not an inherent problem, but I think the writers want us to sympathize with Rocky, at least as the story progresses), and, most importantly, the film’s tension is simply artificial at worst and weak at best. This leads me to my next point, which is perhaps the deal breaker for me.
III. THE PROBLEM WITH TENSION
Contrary to a majority of the reviews I’ve read both on this site and in journals/online magazines, I did not feel a single ounce of tension during this film. I was virtually alone in the gigantic stadium in which I viewed the film; and, to me, this makes for an optimal viewing experience when viewing horror films. When you are with one hundred other people in the theater, a number of things happen: camaraderie is established because everyone involved is working through the film together; a few people get outrageously scared, which makes many other people laugh (and thus lightens up the mood); and, perhaps most importantly, you feel safe because you’re aware of your surroundings and you’re more cognizant of the fact that you are, indeed, in a movie theater enjoying a piece of cinema. When I saw GREEN ROOM with my girlfriend, we were one of SIX people on opening weekend (at the ArcLight cinema in Hollywood, so I’m still not quite sure why the stadium was so vacant). GREEN ROOM is an intense, claustrophobic thriller, and I was on the edge of my seat the entire time, partially because I was so immersed in the cinematic experience.
I know that last part is a bit of a digression; but, trust me, this is going somewhere. As I’ve laid out, the movie going experience of DON’T BREATHE was, for me, ideal. So why was I left so cold? Why did I feel not a single ounce of tension? Well, it’s oddly both a simple and complex issue. For one, tension builds when stakes are high, and stakes—in some way, shape, or form—depend chiefly, though not primarily, on viewer-character relationships. The problem here is that a viewer with a strong moral compass is lead early on to believe that the three burglars are not good people. Sure, Rocky is living in a horrendous situation; however, she chooses to steal. I’m not going to list her options for a better life—mainly because that’s not the point—but what I’m getting at here is that our focalizing characters do not deserve our sympathy. If this is the case, which I argue it is before the third act of the film, I can’t help but not feel legitimate tension. I cannot feel bad for what might come to three young burglars who knowingly break into the house of an Iraq War veteran who lost his vision at war (side note: the Iraq War’s reputation is predicated upon the fact that we now have hundreds of thousands of veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder—why would you not assume that a PTSD victim has guns in the house?).
After the horrendous third act, there is theoretically a situation that could have generated tension for me—despite the misgivings and mistakes of Rocky, she does not deserve to be artificially inseminated by anyone against her will, as absolutely nothing warrants such a horrific act (this goes without saying). That said, Rocky and Alex make two mistakes that left me feeling, again, quite cold: 1) they decide to leave the blind man in the cellar hooked up to a handcuff tied to a fucking string (if you’ve paid attention or have a seen a horror film in your life, you know this is going to come back to haunt the characters), and 2) they do not kill the blind man, despite the fact that they witnessed Money’s death and have both been brutalized by this monster. These two situations are nonsensical—no one in their right mind would opt for either of these paths away from the drama, much less opt to do both. That was the last straw for me in the tension department. In short, I have no clue why anyone felt any amount of tension even close to the level of tension that GREEN ROOM generated. And I know that the experience of tension—or any feeling in general—cannot be negated or delegitimized; but, at the same time, I would be curious to know precisely why so many people thought this movie was tense.
This is perhaps my biggest global issue with the film, and it is part and parcel as to why I think the film suffers as a whole; but, there is a glaring issue as to why I had a big problem with the film, and I don’t think I need to make a proper transition to inform you as to what that might be (I think almost everyone will agree with my next point). If you have read this far, ABANDON ALL HOPE, YE WHO ENTER HERE.
IV. FALLEN DAUGHTER, FALLEN FATHER
The central motivation that drives the second half of the film belongs squarely to the blind man. The audience comes to know that the blind man has tragically lost his daughter to a motor vehicle accident. From the convenient piece of newspaper that the assailant holds (and the clippings we saw earlier in the narrative), we discover that the bound woman killed the blind man’s daughter, and that this is presumably why he is holding her in a confined space, a la Lenny Abrahamson's ROOM. However, the real motivation is much deeper and sinister.
After the blind man accidentally shoots the assailant, and after he traps Rocky in the same room, he informs Rocky that the assailant stole his daughter from him. He reasons that she took away his daughter, and that the only true recompense is that she provide him with another (he even claims that he was going to release her post-birth, which, I’m sorry, wasn’t going to happen—after all, why would he reclaim a new potential daughter only to spend the rest of his life in prison?). Additionally, he claims that he never raped the assailant, which, sorry, cannot possibly be true.
If the theme the director wished to explore was something along the lines of “the things we do to reclaim our fallen loved ones,” or, “the extreme things trauma makes us do,” and I think there is a good case to be made that this is what the director wanted to do, then this whole subplot is unnecessary and serves the narrative in no way, especially when the turkey baster becomes involved. Putting Rocky through that horrific experience—even though penetration does not occur—seriously only does one thing: it produces shock value for the viewer. The film, up to this point, does not rely on shock value to deliver its emotional and horrific punch; rather, the film thrives on using shallow focus and unusual interior terrain to produce what little tension it can muster. This just seems cheap and, honestly, fucked up and terrible.
So, how to explore theme while keeping the blind man’s child’s murderer central to the narrative? I propose that he only needed a change in his reasoning. As we know, the blind man’s reasoning is abnormal, whether due to the physical trauma sustained while abroad, the psychological trauma of losing a child, or a mixture of both. I think it would have been perfectly reasonable, given his state of mind, if he claimed he stole the assailant because he wanted the woman’s father to go through the same thing he did; or because he thought he could replace his daughter with another; or because he wanted to be a sadistic fuck and ensure that the woman received a punishment that met his own standards. Either of these paths seems explainable, they make sense in the narrative, they do not rely on shock value in order to still be fucked up, and, most importantly, they aren’t excessive cheap shots that don’t make sense within the narrative.
V. FINAL REMARKS
If it isn’t clear, I have very mixed feelings about this film; if I didn’t I would not have been compelled to write so much about it. I think DON’T BREATHE stands out from other contemporary horror films that were assembled in the gutter, but I think it falls victim to some lazy writing. There is an incredible film at the heart of this story, and I’m saddened by the fact that I was not able to enjoy this film more than I did. I loved the EVIL DEAD remake, and I loved many of the technical elements in DON’T BREATHE; but, at the end of the day, I think there is more wrong here than right, and for that I must give it a fairly low score.
If you’ve made it to the end, I want to thank you immensely. Working through my thoughts about this film was tough at times, but I think I articulated much of what I wanted to say. I know this long form article is not standard for Letterboxd, and it’s not what you all have come to expect; that said, I think articles like this are necessary for films that otherwise go unchallenged. Most of the reviews I’ve seen have been cogently thought out and deeply considered, but, at the same time, most of the review I’ve read have been overwhelmingly positive.
I’d like to know what you all think about this film, assuming some of you are willing to read and engage with what I’ve laid out. I’m not perfect by any means, and therefore my logic, here, is almost certainly flawed throughout the piece. Call me out where I’ve fucked up.