Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Don't Breathe (2016)

I am cognizant that the following statement I'm prepare to utter can be swiftly applied to any film genre, but it seems that the horror genre is, fittingly, "doomed" to easily contract periods of iteration and stagnation, at least in the Hollywood mainstream scene. This sounds odd, seeing how complex and varied the emotion of fear is. Fear can exist on a psychological, metaphysical, or existential level. It can be irrational or can simmer in our most repressed, vulnerable tendencies or states of being. It can be expressed through phantasmic beings that exploit our most personally unfathomable predicaments or represent the worst in us. Despite all this, it seems as if the predominate stages of the Hollywood horror genre run the gamut from mystical monsters that are now ubiquitous and kitschy (to the extent that they are submitted to self-parody), to torture porn or slasher films meant to elicit a tawdry shock or scream, and to supernatural horror, which currently can be summarized as "uncertain" certainties terrorizing or possessing members of white suburbia, all the while never missing a cue for a jump scare.

Currently, while horror will never be "dead" (accidental, I swear), it seems that we are in the most self-content, creatively sterile period of horror overall, despite sparks of sporadic brilliance. It seems fitting that Paranormal Activity drew mass hysteria right before the conclusion of the Saw franchise. While the found-footage angle led to greater possibilities with films such as, The Visit or Unfriended, the supernatural portion proved tried, true, and infuriatingly warmed over. So, does Don't Breathe represent a shift in a different route for Hollywood? Until they decide to stop milking The Conjuring and Annabelle series, hell no. Is it one of the most invigorating, creatively enlightened, and effective modern horror films? Hell yes.

The film centers around three teenagers in Detroit, Rocky, Alex, and Money. Their primary expertise is robbing the houses protected under Alex's father's security system and selling the valuable items they obtained, in the hopes of escaping the impoverished confines of Detroit and escaping to California. Their newest heist targets the house of a Army veteran, who has obtained a $300K settlement after a family tragedy. The gentleman named Norman is blind, which unfazes them, until Money gets shot and killed by Norman during the heist. It soon turns into a cat-and-mouse game, as Rocky and Alex struggle to maintain their secrecy and dodge the sonically aware, emotionally charged hands of Norman, the blind man.

This film is the definition of a white-knuckle express. The taut, claustrophobic, fear-laden atmosphere of the house give it an insidious identity, yet the complexities of it give it a sort of personality. It seems at every turn, there's a new level that has been unexplored, which would be the more ideal scenario for our protagonists. The lighting is perfectly sparse, resulting in a night vision chase scene, which is one of the most exhilarating, ingenious moments I've witnessed in a horror film.

The nature of the film is minimalist, relying on suspense and dread through the use of sound, in the same vein as films such as, The Blair Witch Project, and Signs. Creaking floors, buzzing phones, crackling windows, breathing, etc. create a foreboding aura not in straightforward fear per se, but of frightening implications. Any sound could be the last. One brilliant move by director Fede Alvarez is his coordination of sounds with Roque Banos' score. Certain sounds increase in volume, along with the score. It's nuances like these that create a elevated level of psychological tension, as opposed to physical, visual fears. If it wasn't for the content of this film, I believe wholeheartedly that this film would be a shoe-in for an Oscar nomination for sound editing.

In a perfect world, Stephen Lang would also be nominated for an Oscar for his portrayal as Norman, the blind man. Only an actor of veteran status, as opposed to celebrity status, could deliver such an emotionally variegated, subtly astute, and maturely menacing performance in a horror film. It may not be Hannibal Lecter status, but it's a damn impressive acting job, minus a few admittedly overwrought moments. However, Dylan Minnette and Daniel Zovatto deliver sincere work as Alex and Money, respectively, and Jane Levy, as Rocky, could easily be a bankable scream queen, if she stays on the right track. It helps that all the actors have been given characters substantially developed, which, for a horror film, is practically an anomaly. It's not innovative work, but screenwriters Rodo Sayagues and (*gasp*) Fede Alvarez deliver a perfect balance of empathy and reality. In both cases, they are identifiable, in spite of their transgressions.

However, with all of the brilliance in this film, I struggle with the ending. I personally would've preferred the removal of the last three minutes, offering a moral elusiveness and complexity that would've been a sly, more cunning way to complement the grimy, dour tone of everything preceding it. Instead, we get a coda that is too satisfactory, too upbeat, and too inconsequential. Every defense I have mustered in my mind for the ending is either excessively lenient, morally incongruous or muddled, conceptually cliched, or, in any allegorical argument, patronizing and simplistic.

Despite this, I consider this film a fluke, in all of the best ways. Horror films have had a history of employing sociopolitical critiques or social commentaries within the ghostly and grisly, from Invasion of the Body Snatchers, to Dawn of the Dead, to even Cabin in the Woods. I feel that this film has subliminally tapped into the sociopolitical zeitgeist of now. So what's the allegory? Is it tapping into the All Lives Matter conceit, in displaying victimized white people attacking victimized white people? Is it tapping into the Black Lives Matter conceit, in the sense that impoverished individuals, using tools legal or illegal to survive, are pitted against a financially well-off white man, who is blind, literally and figuratively, to his own perspectives that the experiences and feelings of the suffering are not taken into account? The failings of our justice system? Inadequate treatment of our veterans? Reproductive rights (That last one has to be seen to understand, but...probably not)? I guess it's open to interpretation. What I am certain of is that the film is innately ironic. Think about it. A film entitled Don't Breathe is a breath of fresh air for horror films. *rimshot*

 RATING: Three-and-a-half stars out of four