Wednesday, July 20, 2016

BREATHE DEEP: "Don't Breathe" Is A Surprisingly Good And Complex Film [VERY MINOR SPOILERS]




Daylight.

Gazing downward from Olympian height...

Rows of abandoned, dilapidated, gutted houses…

Empty unkempt, foreboding streets, intersecting; gloomily criss-crossing...

Focus enlarging; crystallizing in slow, measured descent…

A hunched figure; seemingly Neanderthal...

Inexorably dragging a still, unmoving body down a street... 

Save for the crunch of disturbed gravel and asphalt, all is silence.

Such is the imagery that sets the tone for the latest horror film, Don’t Breathe, directed by Fede Alvarez (Evil Dead (2013)), written by Alvarez and Rodo Sayagues. It’s a simple but tense image; one that engenders a primal disquiet, yet arresting and fascinating. It image foreshadows nothing but grief, but is too compelling to turn away.

The best horror films aren’t the ones that feature the most blood or gore; they’re the ones that tap into the ”collective unconscious” and the culturally shared mythological imagery it possesses. If there’s one thing that’s certain, it’s that the producing team of Sam Raimi and Rob Tapert really love their mythology. It’s evident in their creative output whether it’s adapting classical myths (Hercules: The Legendary Journeys), modern myths (Spider-Man), or creating their own (Xena: Warrior Princess; The Evil Dead franchise), and they do so in entertainingly subversive fashion.

In Detroit, Michigan, three youngsters Rocky (Jane Levy; Evil Dead (2013)); her brainy best friend, Alex (Dylan Minnette; Prisoners); and her lover, Money (Daniel Zovatto; Fear The Walking Dead) are small-time breaking and entering artists who steal goods to fence to finance their exodus from their economically depressed and hopeless circumstances. But the pickings are slim and slow going. Money’s fence, Trevor (Sergei Onopko), tells Money about a Vietnam vet known only as “The Blind Man” (Stephen Lang; Tombstone, Avatar), a disabled recluse who received a $300,000.00 settlement after a careless driver ran over and killed his daughter. Seeing that this would be the score that would be their ticket out of poverty, Money convinces the eager Rocky and reluctant Alex to perform one last job. From the moment the trio enters The Blind Man’s home, what starts out as a simple B&E job becomes a Jungian nightmare from which there may be no escape.

On the surface, it may seem like a run-of-the-mill slasher film. However, closer scrutiny reveals that this story takes its cues from the myth of Theseus and the Minotaur. The cinematography by Pedro Luque evokes a labyrinthine milieu both out of doors and within The Blind Man’s home, where much of the action takes place. Director Alvarez’s clever and, in some cases, inventive use of camera shots, lighting (or lack thereof), and stillness heightens the “mouse caught in a maze” feeling that becomes more oppressively claustrophobic as the film progresses. The same rooms are revisited frequently throughout the film, taking on a new meaning and disquiet a simple change of perspective. They become intricate, irregular, twisting, confusing, and terrifying. The film touches upon the mythological themes of descent and rising from the underworld, and the fact that such journeys rarely, if ever, leave one unscathed.

But no mythological maze would be complete without a Minotaur.  Stephen Lang, with his buffed, leathered, withered countenance and grotesquely glassy blind eyes, gives a performance that epitomizes Minotaur made flesh. Operating in total darkness from without and within, his heightened remaining senses and military training make for an unrelenting force; his grunts, creaking from implied prolong lack of use, only add to the illusion of mythological creature in human form. His is an imposing physical performance; his actual dialogue is scarce in comparison to his co-stars. Yet he evokes terror just by sheer presence alone. It touches the primal fear of the boogeyman in a way most slasher antagonists in the modern era fail to achieve. There is also a call out to the mythical mastiff Cerberus, complete with a tongue-in-cheek shout out to a Stephen King classic.

If it were only a clever reimagining of mythological tropes, this film would be interesting, but not compelling. However, much like the Raimi directed horror film Drag Me To Hell (2009), Don’t Breathe’s characters are complicated yet relatable individuals. Like most mythological heroes, they are neither completely good nor evil. They are, arguably, good people who do bad things. Rocky’s life is the school of hard knocks, and she wants out. Alex’s love for Rocky is unrequited, but he cares for and will do anything for her. Even the oily, loathsome Money is not all bad. He wants a better life for himself and Rocky (even if he does refer to her as “my bitch”). It’s hard not to sympathize with any of the characters; including, to a much lesser degree, The Blind Man. Generally, once a villain or monster’s motivations are explained, the inherent evil and horror of that character diminishes. This is the rare case wherein the monster is sympathetic (and make no mistake, a monster he is) yet still retains the same level of horror. Alvarez subverts the protagonist/antagonist dichotomy because, depending on one’s point of view, the characters act as both. It’s more an atheistic, Darwinian treatise than a morality play.

The film has an 88 minute run time, yet manages to be excruciatingly suspenseful while maintaining a breezing pacing. The tight editing keeps the action going and ratchets the unease within the corridor-laden house; even the quiet moments are fraught with tension and anxiety. However, the film contains moments of possibly unintended humor. I say “possibly” as Raimi and Tapert are known for their penchant for subversive, black humor. But the laughs are more from cathartic release than from any cliché eye rolling. Nevertheless, the tension runs that high throughout the film. Roque Baños’ minimalist but foreboding score adds to the tableau by acoustically grating the nerves. The narrative as a whole is terrifying yet engaging, holding your interest (and seat) up until the controversial conclusion.

Don’t Breathe is a breath of fresh air for its genre. For horror fans, it certainly entertains on that level. But, like any maze, the deeper one goes, the more complicated it becomes. As with any mythological sojourn, perceptions will change by journey’s end. It’s subversively compelling, but won’t allow you to breathe easily.

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