Hello, everyone! Let me start this post by saying I have a bone to pick with critics. Why can’t everyone like what I like? But seriously, sometimes I watch a movie, mostly in the horror genre, and I’m bewildered by the critical reviews. They watch It Follows and say it’s one of the best horror movies of the decade, I say it’s a pretty yawnfest. They watch The Visit and praise the film for its “satisfying blend of thrills and laughs” (Rotten Tomatoes) and I collapse to the ground, decrying a world that deems a lukewarm found footage movie with a stupid twist to be acceptable, or even worse, scary. What confuses me the most, however, is the reaction from critics to a movie like Don’t Breathe. How can a group who can find the sudden appearance of a tall man terrifying somehow stomach a movie as disturbing and morally ambiguous as this one? Spoilers Ahead (you’ve been warned!)
Synopsis: Money, Rocky, and Alex, a trio of smooth criminals, are used to executing flawless robberies with the help of Alex’s father’s alarm company intel. Desperate to leave their rundown Detroit neighborhood, the group accepts a tip pointing them towards The Blind Man’s House, who they believe is sitting on a million dollar wrongful death settlement. Nothing can prepare them for the surprises that lay within, and as the group struggles with the Blind Man’s unpredictable actions, they realize that they may have to trade their freedom for their lives.
I have to commend Don’t Breathe from turning an incredibly dumb premise into a frightening concept that’s worth the watch. I was initially skeptical of how scary this movie would be; after all, a blind man, no matter how deadly, is still only a human, and humans have limitations. As the movie progressed, I discovered that my preconceived notions were mostly right. The Blind Man wasn’t scary, but his actions were terrifying.
Director Fede Alvarez plays with the viewers’ expectations of protagonists and villains. To say that these characters are nuanced would be a stretch, but they didn’t always do what I expected. Money is perhaps the least developed character, and that’s fitting, since he’s out of the picture in the first 20 minutes. It was never clear to me whether he was supposed to be one of the characters to root for, since he was the most violent of the group, and frankly, he brought about his own death. There were times when I sympathized with him, such as when he begged a hesitant Alex to help them with the robbery because he needed to get Rocky out of Detroit, but that sympathy faded when, barely a scene later, he called her “his bitch.” Then again, compared to the later treatment of Rocky in this film, that might have been intended as endearing.
Rocky, another prime choice for protagonist, isn’t easy to root for either. Driven by her greed (is robbery really your only option to save your sister?), she makes more and more ridiculous decisions, until eventually she is valuing the money ahead of her very life. Alex is the only character with any moral compass, which is why he’s the one the viewer should be latching on to, if Alvarez wasn’t so firmly pointing them towards Rocky as the Final Girl. A morally righteous protagonist isn’t necessary for a good film, and I love a good anti-hero as much as anyone, but Rocky, Money, and even Alex to an extent aren’t anti-heroes so much as idiots who are fighting for their lives due to their own stupidity. It’s like watching Sons of Anarchy and being expected to sympathize with the murderous bikers. Maybe if they weren’t violent criminals, bad shit wouldn’t happen to them. And maybe if Bonnie and her two Clydes hadn’t decided to rob an armed war veteran with a bad, bad secret, no blood would have been shed.
Besides three mostly conscience-free protagonists, we have a further complication in the story: The Blind Man. At first I was rooting for him. He was violent, but reasonably so. After all, he was the victim of a robbery and home invasion. After he shot Money, both Rocky and Alex had a chance to escape, but Rocky decided the money was worth more than her life, and she caused The Blind Man to go on a rampage as he searched desperately, Money’s pistol in hand, for the other two invaders in his house. This first incarnation of The Blind Man is why reviewers compared the film to Wait Until Dark; this vulnerable, frightened character is far easier to root for than the robbers. It’s only when the twist, and then the other, twistier twist is introduced that you realize that there is no semblance of morality in any of these characters, or in this film. Beware, this is where the real spoilers come in.
The trailer makes it seem like Don’t Breathe is a straightforward case of a robbery gone wrong, and it’s not until about the halfway point that Alvarez flips the script, and the audience’s opinion of hero and villain crumbles. After escaping to the basement, Rocky and Alex stumble upon a hidden room, where they find a young woman, bound and chained to the wall. Their objective is no longer just to escape, but to bring the girl with them. That leads to more violence, after which the captive girl is mistakenly shot and afterwards, Alex is gravely injured. Rocky is the only one left, but before she can escape, The Blind Man captures her, chains her to the wall, and makes her aware of his intentions to…forcefully inseminate her, hold her captive for nine months, and kidnap her newborn baby for himself.
There is something so abhorrent about this concept that it is difficult for me to articulate. I think the problem, for me at least, is that by raising the stakes from murder to forced insemination and imprisonment, Alvarez takes the movie from a fun, schlocky gore-fest into something close to exploitation. One would think that there is nothing more terrifying than fighting for your life, except there is, and it’s Rocky’s potential fate at the hands of The Blind Man. The Blind Man shows a complete disregard for the lives of Money and Alex, but when it comes to Rocky, she is less than a human to him. She is a sack of flesh in which he can keep his child until it’s ready to be born. The Blind Man insists that he’s “not a rapist,” as he just about forces the turkey baster down her jeans, and that, hey, he’s only doing this because his child was wrongly killed. Are we supposed to feel sorry for him because his daughter was hit by a car and the girl responsible paid her way to freedom? Does his tragedy somehow make it okay for him to kidnap, rape, and imprison another girl?
That’s the part I’m still not clear on. Eventually, with the help of Alex, Rocky does escape and even forces the turkey baster down The Blind Man’s throat. That scene is a great moment of revenge, but it doesn’t erase the fact that while the worst thing Alex and Money have to face is a bullet, Rocky has to face an unending nightmare of violation. It makes me wonder if Alvarez would have included a girl in the movie if he didn’t have this plot planned for her. Is Rocky’s only role to be chained up in a simulation of bondage, with her jeans slashed to titillate?
Her role in this film reminds me why I stopped watching Alvarez’s remake of Evil Dead. There’s a certain scene that is so extra (and I mean that in the Urban Dictionary way) that as soon as it was over I said nope, i’m done with this and turned off the television. I don’t know if Fede Alvarez has a weird obsession with Jane Levy in chains, but he’s once again reducing the female character in a horror movie into something to be captured and assaulted. There is no reason that this has to happen except for a sick shock value. If I think of horror movies with compelling female protagonists that didn’t hang the rapey Sword of Damocles over their heads, they still manage to be tense and thrilling. Hush, You’re Next, The Strangers, The Ring (American remake), Oculus, The Descent, Halloween, The Conjuring, Insidious 1,2,3, Carrie, The Silence of the Lambs, Scream, Alien, all of these films and more manage to be scary without also being sexually violent. Punch, kick, or drag the female protagonists to hell, but please, don’t rape them. As long as the fear of sexual violence hangs over the heads of female leads, equality between male and female leads doesn’t stand a chance.