Monday, September 5, 2016

I'm not even ovulating, you idiot


Close to ideal for what it aims to be, most of the issues that Don't Breathe has comes from writing itself into a corner, then writing itself out with a sticky keyboard.  And let's call them issues, because "problems" might overstate the matter, simply because this movie's so nuts, and I'm terribly loath to condemn a preposterous thriller like this just for going nuts.  As for the rest of it, outside of one or two annoying characters and a yawning gap or two in its premise—hey, did you not see those two words, "preposterous thriller"?—but other than that, well.  It's damn near unimpeachable.

Directed by Fede Alvarez
Written by Rodo Sayagues and Fede Alvarez
With Jane Levy (Rocky), Dylan Minnette (Alex), Daniel Zovatto (Money), and Stephen Lang (The Blind Man)

Spoiler alert: moderate? high?

And so we arrive at Don't Breathe, Fede Alvarez' second feature after The Evil Dead's extraordinary 2013 remake.  Not coincidentally, that film also starred Jane Levy, the young actor who has, I suppose, become this splatter director's muse, insofar as he has employed her twice in a row now as the beyond-obvious Final Girl in both of his horror films.  (Neither are quite slashers, but they're certainly close enough.)  It's a role in which she has acquitted herself absolutely marvelously each time; and if this collaboration lasts, we could be in for even more excellent movies about young women being brutalized to shit.  Furthermore, Don't Breathe has at least one major advantage over its predecessor: in this Alvarez joint, Levy isn't the only person on the screen whose acting doesn't suck.

Whether that makes it, perforce, a better movie than Evil Dead is hard to say.  Now, it's obvious what Breathe actually does better; namely, it's vastly more tense in its construction and in its mood.  Hence it's vastly better at being an actual horror film—and this is so, even though technically Breathe is "just" a thriller.  It's almost as obvious what it does worse; the new film ultimately goes to a really weird, really sordid place, and it frankly feels oh-so-slightly artificial—whereas all the sordidly weird places that old Evil Dead went to still felt like natural detours, if only because they came in the midst of an attack by Deadites, who have never exactly been known for their manners.

But, yes, it's most obvious of all what Breathe winds up doing more-or-less the same; and, once again, Alvarez' clumsy attempt to graft human drama onto his scenario is worse than perfunctory.  (This time, the attempt manifests in the form of our heroine's justification for her criminal lifestyle, a stupid-pwecious widdle sister with an Omega Level lisp.  Meanwhile, the relationship between the three protagonists themselves is defined—mainly in the absence of anything else—by the most terminally shitty "love triangle" you'll ever see, something we can be very thankful gives up its meager ghost completely, just as soon as the movie gets to its actual reason for existing.  Truly, there's a far superior version of Breathe where one of the young men interrupts the other's egregious posturing to say, simply, "I don't want to fuck her, I just don't like you.")

Anyway, I guess I'll have to sit with Breathe for a while to really be sure which one of Alvarez' two features is the best—but the point is, it definitely compares.  And that means that it's reasonably fair to call the thing great.

So: outside of its mostly-meaningless motivations, Breathe is a very, very simple machine.  In the wasteland called Detroit, we find three petty hoods, bounding from burglary to burglary.  The apparent leader is Rocky, the athletic woman who's sad because her sister is languishing in a jumped-up movie kind of poverty, and who dreams of taking her sibling with her to California.  Their technical asset is Rocky's friend, Alex, who happens to be the son of a security officer, and therefore has access to his father's firm's passwords and keys.  And—last, as well as least—their connection to the Detroit underworld is Rocky's boyfriend, "Money," whom we soon discover is an obnoxious (and borderline-racist) caricature, the kind of guy you could easily imagine getting stabbed in the back and used as a patsy, were this a very different kind of movie, thanks to his archly abrasive personality, not to mention the fact that his usefulness to the team is premised mainly upon his cellphone's contact list.

Well, despite committing their heists with aplomb—one of the film's most respectful grace notes is the way they end their burglaries by forcing an entering, presumably throwing suspicion off Alex (although there is literally no way that the police could ever fail to notice the pattern of alarms going off, then being disarmed by a compromised security code)—the trio have still not yet managed to get anywhere close to being rich, thanks to the pennies on the dollar they tend to get on all the merchandise they steal.  But this is where they receive a fateful tip: in an abandoned neighborhood in Detroit, one man has stayed behind.  A few years ago, this man received hundreds of thousands of dollars in settlement money after his daughter had the misfortune of being run over by a rich girl—and, because the man is apparently crazy (he's a veteran!) but mostly because this movie needs a premise, he never actually put this money in a bank.

But you ask, in all earnestness, "why?"  Because fuuuck youuuu.  That's why!

They scope the joint, and realize the veteran is also blind, which should make it all the easier.  Obviously, this turns out to be a very bad mistake.  Almost instantly, one of their number is felled (the trailer radically spoils this surprise, along with another, when it turns out the old man is hiding more than just cash).  The pair of survivors do their best to escape the brutal veteran's locked-down fortress of a home—ideally, without making a sound.

(But then, you do already have a pretty solid guess as to where all this is heading, insofar as Breathe deigns to open—like every third damned movie made since the early 2000s—with a contextless scene from its climax.  Still, it's one of the most intriguing deployments of that particularly disfavored trope in many moons: Breathe begins with a long, long crane shot, across our cis-apocalyptic Detroit; and here is where we find our blind villain, dragging the bleeding body of our heroine to her presumptive doom.  It is stridently cliche—it's about as blunt as a hammer to the skull—but, Goddamn, it's so totally effective that I didn't care.)

Now, of course: the most obvious (and necessary) comparison to make is to Wait Until Dark, Terence Young's nerve-jangling 1967 thriller, which Don't Breathe flips completely on its head by taking the side of its burglars rather than its victim.  In the process, it reconceives Audrey Hepburn as a sinewy old man with off-putting cloudy eyes that stare out into the void, and a voice so gruff and strained it probably qualifies as a disability all by itself.  (You know, it's probably not nearly as interesting as I think it is, but the phrase "don't breathe" is never uttered in this film—while it's one of the first things that Dark's villain tells his compatriots, the instant before Hepburn walks in the door.)

Still, whether Breathe is actually superior to Dark is a question that somewhat misses the point—though I think it is, if it's a question whose answer is important to you.   However, the two movies are doing such terrifically different things.  Dark, you know, is an exercise in ersatz Hitchcock: the larger part of its runtime is occupied by a potentially-deadly confidence game; its main tool is a wordy, plotty scaffolding borrowed from the play it was based on.  Plus, Dark could have been a pretty swell blindness melodrama if it had wanted to be that instead, for its characters are appealing and empathetic—decidedly unlike the ones we find here.  Which just goes to show that humanism has never been that much of a hard prerequisite for an avowed pulse-pounder like this.

In any event, Breathe is a pure survival thriller.  The plot, such as it is, is essentially a collection of well-connected vignettes that serve to accumulate all the various moving parts we'll ultimately need in order to get to the point where our survivor girl is alone, threatened, and either manages to overcome her terribly dire straits, or else is swallowed whole within them.  For just one prime example, it rises completely to the level of black comedy in how they just keep forgetting about that damn dog.

The other easy comparison is Panic Room, and there's an unmistakable, old-style Fincheresque quality to the way Alvarez' camera sweeps around the decaying suburban Gothic of this blind man's brick mansion—incidentally, the production design of this film is just top, top notch—thereby impressing upon you a sense of continuous architecture.  Meanwhile, Breathe likewise plays around with the same basic elements of plot.  The difference, fortunately, is that Breathe quickly jettisons the most out-and-out obnoxious of those elements (imagine a Panic Room where Jared Leto heroically ate it in the first act, rather than sticking around! it's so much better).  Meanwhile, here the battle of wits devolves, almost immediately, into a battle of guns, and, moreover, of fists.  (Indeed, there is something absolutely superb—even almost sickening—about the way Alvarez, his stunt coordinators, and sound designers handle punching in this film.  Punching a man or a woman in the face until they submit or lose consciousness is treated like a process in Breathe, never as just a single event, let alone a painless plot complication, and it's filmed like Alvarez wants God Himself to cover His eyes.)

And I kept right on watching.

You see, one of the canniest things Alvarez does here is to refrain from pushing his blind killer totally into the realm of the superhuman; at no time do you get the impression that Mia from Evil Dead is actually locked in epic struggle with an aged Matt Murdock.  Our nameless blind monster is competent—hypercompent, even (he is the villain in a thriller)—but his moments of vulnerability help sell Alvarez' vicious constructed reality.  In the end, our villain's as much of a bag of flesh, filled with various cinematically-interesting fluids, as his prey.  Hey, maybe moreso.

Fleshiness without unnecessary humanity is Alvarez' goal with Breathe.  It succeeds almost completely, infusing the stalking killer/haunted house scenario with grotesque tension, a sense of legitimate fear, that can nevertheless be enjoyed from a certain emotional distance.  But it could not work at all without Stephen Lang.  He brings the right physique—and the right mixture of menace, calculation, and awkwardness to his blind-man body language—and, in the process, Lang's presumably essayed the best role of his whole career.  It is solely when the screenplay straight-up sells him out—by forcing him to utter a horrifyingly bad line like "There is nothing a man can't do when he realizes there's no God"—that he ever truly stumbles here.  (I do remain agnostic, however, on whether his choice to close his eyes when concentrating on his other senses is technically adept, or even aesthetically preferable, blind acting.)

And yet, you know, it arguably goes too far in the direction of the flesh.  (With that exciting yet intolerably-revealing trailer, I can't even tell what's supposed to be a spoiler when it comes to Breathe.)  But once the film settles down into its first-half-of-the-third-act lull, it stirs once again, but only to traffick in a little bit of sexual horror.  You do have to give it this much: it's an inventive form of sexual horror—even if it's also pretty transparently the result of two men sitting at a table, doing their level best to innovate a new perversity that circumvents (some of) the usual objections to horror flick rape tropes.  But at the very least, it offers an image of a certain drooling container that, I wager, will take you directly off your feet—and whether you react to it with giddy giggles (my choice) or with somewhat-justified outrage is, as always, a personal matter, and I am not fit to judge.

The thing that's most striking about Don't Breathe is the same thing that was most striking about Evil Dead: the brash, take-no-prisoners confidence that Alvarez brings to this nasty-minded shocker.  Oh, let's be clear, it's got flaws.  It's a film that's chock full of conceptual problems; occasionally, it kind of outright lies to you, with cagey framing and misleading editing; it is upsettingly gross; and, Lord knows, nobody is well-served by that awful epilogue, especially not when the film practically demands to be concluded a full three minutes earlier, with a natural final shot that makes perfect use of the 'Scope frame's width to realize one character's wonderfully dramatic stage-right exit.  But Breathe has the  visceral impact to spare, and, perhaps more importantly still, it's positively ecstatic to be exactly what it is, without being much of anything more—namely, a scary, hyperviolent thriller, that sometimes feints in the direction of class war and gender politics, but that knows, in its heart of hearts, all that really matters is whether it gets the blood up.  And, oh, I assure you, it does.

Score:  8/10


  1. I really wish I loved it as much as you did, but there's no denying it's a capable thriller! And that SHOT of the dribbling baster is pure grody, giggle-inducing fun. It's everything ELSE that's wearisome. But I wish the rest of the film had that demented energy.

    And, incidentally, a lot of films have Final Girls that aren't necessarily slashers. It comes from horror's predilection for victimizing women, but at least there's a silver lining in that we get far more female protagonists in the genre than pretty much anywhere else.

    So... October is coming up. I know it's still a while away, but I've been such a miserable sod at finishing our crossover reviews on time. Do you want to assign me my share of Cardboard Science now? I'd like to be able to get ahead of myself.

    1. Oh, let' see. How about two good with one (kinda) bad? I pick: Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Godzilla, and The Beginning of the End.

    2. It seems like you're being exceptionally nice this year, so I should return the favor.

      After much consideration, I present you with this:
      THE GOOD: I, Madman (1989)
      THE BAD: The Initiation (1984)
      THE WEIRD: Chopping Mall (1986)

    3. The challenge is accepted. I shall see you in October. (Also, before that. I mean, I'd assume so.)