No film is completely perfect, but it takes a special kind of wrongheadedness to make a decision that completely divorces an audience from enjoyment by being both morally repugnant and betraying its own narrative. This is the experience of watching Don’t Breathe, technical wunderkind Fede Alvarez’s follow-up to his promising remake of Evil Dead, which fell short of the original but still managed to impress.
With Don’t Breathe, Alvarez clearly relishes the freedom that comes with being under the wing of Sam Raimi’s Ghost House Pictures. For the first hour or so, the movie is a fantastic, clever twist on the home invasion genre. The plot follows three burglars in Detroit who plan their robberies carefully: Alex (Dylan Minnette), whose father installs security systems and is extremely methodical and keen on minimizing the gang’s legal risk; Rocky (Jane Levy), who is fixing to make enough so she can live the good life in California with her daughter; and Money (Daniel Zovatto), the most reckless and aggressive of the bunch.
In figuring out their next score, the group chooses the house of a mysterious, reclusive, blind veteran (Stephen Lang), who won a large settlement after his daughter was killed. The operation takes a turn for the worse when the blind man (as he is credited) is alerted to the robbers’ presence and kills Money. He then blocks off all exits for Rocky and Alex, and what follows—at least until it all comes crashing down—is some of the most exciting camerawork of the summer, delivering a thrilling cat-and-mouse game where the ability to see becomes a disadvantage. The house is Alvarez’s playground, and the way in which he maximizes the dramatic potential of just a few rooms and hallways is truly captivating.
This is where things get ugly. This might be an appropriate place for a spoiler warning, but this sort of thing needs to be discussed openly. While Rocky and Alex are trying to find an unguarded exit, they discover a woman who is kept hostage in the basement, who we come to learn is responsible for killing the blind man’s daughter. She was acquitted, the blind man says, because “rich girls don’t go to jail.” Kind of demented, but after the trauma of war, then losing his child and seeing the perpetrator go free, it works as a component of the overall moral ambiguity of the narrative; neither the thieves nor the blind man are entirely good or bad—either side could win in the end.
Rocky is captured and placed in the harness where the killer once was. Here, we learn that she wasn’t simply a hostage. She was forcefully impregnated by the blind man, which is what he’s about to do to Rocky. This moment is played for campy laughs, with a slo-mo close-up of a turkey baster dripping with semen, and the purpose is only a ticking clock for Alex to heroically rescue Rocky.
Let’s repeat: There’s a five-minute sexual terror near-rape subplot that’s played for laughs. The blind man is about to forcefully insert this object into Rocky and we’re supposed to find this thrilling?
Narratively, it fails on its own terms; this moment exists so the audience changes its opinion of the blind man, removing any sympathy and making it all right for Rocky and Alex to kill him if necessary. Even a less horrifying trait would be a betrayal of the breathless anything-could-happen flow of the film that precedes it, dulling the edge on the audience’s anticipation. But for the filmmaker to make him an abductor who impregnates his captives and then assume it’s so cartoony as to be unbelievable is insulting. We just had an Academy Award- winning film, Room, explore this very subject. It’s not a hammy subplot.
This sudden shift does the double duty of being wholly unnecessary and manages to lose whatever traction the film had. The final showdown isn’t heightened from this contrivance, but rather it’s deadened as the audience is still trying to cope with what just happened. It’s puzzling, it’s heartbreaking, it’s unnecessary. Alvarez has something to offer the world cinematically, but the transcendent first hour of Don’t Breathe only means that it crashes from a greater height than if it had never been any good in the first place.
Playing this week
Regal Stonefield 14 and IMAX The Shops at Stonefield, 244-3213
Bad Moms, Ben-Hur, Florence Foster Jenkins, Hands of Stone, Jason Bourne, Kubo and the Two Strings, Mechanic: Resurrection, Pete’s Dragon, Sausage Party, The Secret Life of Pets, Star Trek Beyond, Suicide Squad
Violet Crown Cinema 200 W. Main St., Downtown Mall, 529-3000
Ben-Hur, Don’t Think Twice, Florence Foster Jenkins, Hell or High Water, Jason Bourne, Kubo and the Two Strings, The Music of Strangers, Pete’s Dragon, Sausage Party, Suicide Squad, War Dogs