Is there any life left in the idea that at the end of the day, it’s humanity that is the monster, not the monsters themselves? I don’t know. It’s pretty well-trod ground at this point. Sometimes it comes at you from a surprising angle, sometimes it feels sort of inevitable, and sometimes it’s so loudly telegraphed that the movie itself is almost beside the point. I don’t think it’s necessarily the weighty revelation that more obvious examples seem to think it is. Yes, people can be fucking terrible. We know.
But that’s not entirely fair, because I think any movie explicitly intended to convey some kind of social message is off to a bad start. More often than not, they end up didactic and tiresome - the cinematic equivalent of someone wagging their finger in your face. But when you don’t center it, when you just make it a part of the movie’s landscape, I think it can still work. And I’m mostly thinking this because Don’t Breathe - which is better than I thought it was going to be, if not as good as it could have been - isn’t afraid to muddy the moral waters a bit across the board.
It's early morning in a quiet Detroit neighborhood. The sun’s lighting the tree-lined streets with gold, and all is quiet, except for the man dragging a body down the middle of the street. Some time before that, a trio of thieves are breaking into a very nice house with a crisp efficiency. Alex times how long they have to get to the alarm and disable it. Rocky dresses up in the owner’s expensive clothes, dreaming of a better life, and Money breaks things and pisses on the carpet. This is how they afford things. They break in, steal stuff, and fence it. Times are hard in Detroit for the kind of people who don’t live in those fancy houses. But it’s getting tougher - Alex insists that they don’t take cash, and stolen goods don’t pay out as well. Money is especially unhappy with this situation, and their fence tips him off to what could be an especially lucrative score. There’s a blind Gulf War veteran who won a big settlement when a wealthy young woman hit his daughter with her car. So there’s this old blind man sitting on a ton of cash - an easy score.
Alex is reluctant to take the job - large amounts of money mean bigger sentences if they get caught and cash means victims aren’t just going to collect the insurance money and call it a day. But Rocky and Money both want to make it happen, and rather than let them run off and get themselves caught, Alex comes along. The house is the only one occupied in one of Detroit’s many ghost neighborhoods - nobody around for a couple of blocks in any direction.
Nobody around to see a man dragging a body down the middle of the street in the early morning.
It’s an interesting balance, and there’s a nice ticking tension to most of the film made up of near miss after near miss and the thing someone needs being inches away, but those inches being the difference between life and death. As the film winds on, the protagonists discover just what this man is capable of, and it’s so much worse than they could have imagined.
But in other ways, it’s very much not a monster movie. There are humanizing touches to the blind man as well, moments of fear and grief and uncertainty. When he realizes there’s more than one intruder in the house, he’s clearly afraid, as any vulnerable old man on his own would be. He just wants to be left alone, to grieve his lost daughter in his own way, and never did anything to Alex, Rocky or Money except be there and have a lot of money that they wanted to take. He’s done bad things (very bad things, as it turns out), but he’s still a person. And Alex, Rocky, and Money are just people, but they’re capable of bad things. Make no mistake, this film is not a character study - Rocky is the girl who dreams of getting her and her little sister out of their abusive living situation, Alex is the brains of the operation, careful and methodical, and Money is the loose cannon, a wannabe gangster who’s clearly a liability. And that’s pretty much it. And at the end of the day, they have made a decision to rob someone who is, to all appearances, a vulnerable old man, precisely because he seems to be an easy target. They know about his grief and loss, and they don’t care, because it just means he’s sitting on a lot of cash that they want. It’s a tricky proposition to have a film where the protagonists are mostly unsympathetic, but there are some nice twists and reveals that keep everyone involved from being either unambiguously good or bad. Everyone is what they appear to be, but more than that besides, and it does make everything a little more complicated and keeps it from being reduced to a cartoon.
On the other hand, the third act ends up being a bit of a problem. There’s a bunch of unnecessary last-minute exposition, one last-minute reversal after another, and the whole thing feels like it ends maybe three times before it actually does, with some pretty cliched Final Girl stuff at the end. There are som serious implausibilities throughout (like, this is one really resourceful blind man). But again, it’s maybe redeemed a bit by the underlying moral ambiguity of the whole thing. It’s not so much “who will survive and what will be left of them” as it is “who will survive, and what were they made of to begin with.” It manages to take an ending that is in many ways pretty stock for the genre and keep it from feeling like a triumph in any direction. Some people won’t like that, but I’m here for it.
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