by Brendan Foley
(My esteemed colleague Jon Partridge wrote a terrific review of Don’t Breathe out of SXSW. But, hey, #1 movie in America, I think the site can stand another riff)
By now you should have had the chance to either see Don’t Breathe or learn enough to know that it is not for you. Don’t Breathe has proven to be a kind of blood-spattered unicorn: an original studio horror film with a real budget (not a large one, but exponentially more than you see from many Blumhouse productions or other similar outlets) that has opened to critical adoration along with big audience response (it’s the number one film in America and currently has an 87% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes).
I saw the film, I enjoyed the film, but something about it has been nagging at me ever since leaving the cinema, and it all comes back to one scene.
Turn back now to keep yourself spoiler free.
OK, so the set-up to Don’t Breathe is simplicity itself. Three fairly shitty kids hear that an old blind man (Stephen Lang, a force of nature) living in a rundown house in an almost entirely abandoned Detroit neighborhood is secretly sitting on top of a massive fortune. Thinking they’ve found an easy windfall for One Last Job, the kids break into his house and start rooting around for the cash. But the blind man wakes up and almost immediately turns the tables, killing one and trapping the others in his house.
What follows is essentially a 90-minute suspense set piece, with the kids desperately trying to find a way out of the house as the blind man and his ferocious dog (they always gotta have ferocious dogs in movies like this) close off the house room by room.
Along with your standard horror concerns (“Oh no, a hammer”) the early goings of Don’t Breathe also test the audience’s instincts for empathy. The blind man may be ferocious, but these kids did break into his house. He’s the victim, and while the punishment and torment he unleashes on the burglars is almost Sam Raimi-esque in its excess (Raimi is actually a producer on the film), it’s hard to deny him the moral upper hand.
Until the kids go into his basement and discover a bound and terrified woman chained to the wall. That clarifies things a tad.
Long story short, near the close of the movie’s second act, Rocky (Jane Levy), the closest-to-sympathetic of the movie’s crooks, gets conked out and when she wakes up, she has been chained into what at least one critic has so eloquently described as a “rape dungeon”.
The blind man is there, and he informs her that the previous girl (killed in a skirmish) accidentally killed his daughter and so, as payment, he chained her up and forced her to carry another child for him. With her dead, the blind man announces that Rocky will now give him a new child, just as soon as he artificially inseminates her with the semen that he has on hand for reasons that we probably shouldn’t get into.
This sequence has immediately become the most heavily discussed and debated moment in Don’t Breathe. In fairness, that seems completely intentional. Writer/Director Fede Alvarez said as much in an interview he did with my pal Jacob Hall over at SlashFilm.
He said, “All of the classics have at least one scene, one moment, that was completely fucked up. We’ve gotten used to them and they’re not so shocking anymore. Watch those classic movies. Go back to Psycho and The Exorcist. People were losing their minds, running out of the theater, fainting… it was all kinds of madness! And that’s what made those movies as big as they were and so polarizing.”
The attempted insemination was clearly designed as the centerpiece, showstopping moment of the film, from its placement at the top of the third act/end of the second, to the way Alvarez shoots and cuts the sequence. While the rest of the film has a David Fincher-ian cold precision (showcased in an early tracking shot that zips through the house and leans in on the items and weaponry and items that will become weaponry over the course of the film), the insemination sequence takes on a different, impressionistic style. Alvarez strives to put you in Rocky’s confused, terrified, violated skull, playing with time and sound and the frame speed. To my recollection it is the only scene rendered in such a manner.
And then there’s the nature of the scene itself. Don’t Breathe‘s thrills and chills are otherwise linked to the immediate, to the visceral. The horror comes from physical intimacy, either in the close proximity of bodies from one another, or the way the lens zeroes in on the punishment that the blind man unleashes on the intruders.
But sexual violence is another matter altogether. Blood and goo may make frequent appearances in horror pictures, but sperm is a fluid that rarely finds its way into mainstream cinema, let alone serve as a major plot point. To have semen not just make an appearance but actually be weaponized, it feels like the film is practically winking at the audience as it hurdles beyond ‘acceptable’ horror content.
So the scene was meant to be immediately and memorably upsetting and it is exactly that. So what’s the problem?
The problem I have with the scene is that it just feels so hollow and empty in the grand scheme of the film.
To take it back to Alvarez’s above quote, William Friedkin with The Exorcist wasn’t pushing the boundaries of what could happen in movies just for shits and giggles. Hell, he doesn’t even like referring to The Exorcist as a horror film in the first place. The Exorcist‘s most shocking and upsetting moments all stem organically from the film’s thematic and emotional narrative. With that film, Friedkin took the sincere and widespread fears that parents have for their growing children and cranked them up to eleven. So the perils of puberty became demonic possession, with everything from new sexual urges, changing voice, changing body, horrible language being transmuted into terror, right down to the afflicted child’s room becoming a closed off, forbidden place where untold horrors happen behind a closed door.
When the classic horror films shocked and disturbed, those scenes worked because they came from sincere attempts to capture something REAL, albeit through the exaggerated lens of horror. David Cronenberg made a career out of traumatizing audiences, but those mesmerizing scenes of disgust arose from real observation. When a movie like The Brood or Videodrome or The Fly go “too far” and violate the boundaries of good taste, they do so because Cronenberg is speaking to truths we don’t like to acknowledge, taking emotional reality and giving it flesh in a way that is deeply discomforting.
There’s nothing of that in Don’t Breathe. There’s certainly opportunity for it in the premise. A truly great horror picture might have dug deep and really dealt with the invaded house as a kind of battleground for economic/generational warfare. After all, a group of Millenials facing a future with no money and no prospects and deciding the only way forward is to snake out a fortune from a Baby Boomer that clutches to unused riches like a dragon sleeping on a hoard of gold, there’s some good goddamn meat on those bones.
But Alvarez doesn’t care about that. He just wants to construct that roller coaster and send audiences hooting and hollering out of the movie theater. Fine, great, do that, but it means that the film doesn’t have a leg to stand on when justifying the moments that barrel into perversion and exploitation. I will happily spend all day defending the use of violence (and in some cases, sexual violence) in horror films, but I have no such defense for Don’t Breathe. It’s a movie that goes too far for no other reason than the pride of announcing that it went too far.
Alvarez is a terrific filmmaker who almost assuredly has terrific films in his future. But the next time he constructs a haunted house, I wish he’d take a note from the Sam Raimi that apologized for the tree rape sequence, not the Sam Raimi that shot it.
(Sidenote: Yes, I am aware that Alvarez directed the remake/reboot Evil Dead which put the tree-rape back in, apparently at the insistence of one of the producers. I have not seen that film, so I can’t speak to its merits or how it relates to Don’t Breathe. Feel free to explain in the comments or on Twitter if you think it sheds more light on this particular movie.)