Don’t Breathe is a simple, mostly effective thrill ride

Popcorn horror movies, by default, tend to work as morality tales, where a group of nominally young folks make a very bad decision and pay a price well beyond the normal scales. This could be something like messing with mystic powers they don’t understand, or a crime that haunts them from the past, or something subtler like loosening their professional principles. More often than not, they’re punished for sexual indiscretion, although the best of the genre flip this into commentary on society’s attitudes towards sex. Don’t Breathe is not terribly subtle in this regard; in it, three young adults abuse the trust of an authority figure to attempt to rob a blind man in his home while he sleeps. The said blind man (credited as The Blind Man) is able to create a nightmare for them is only expected. Don’t Breathe doesn’t manage to dive much beyond the surface of its morality tale, and even backpedals from it in some unappealing ways, but works very well as an original ninety minute thrill ride to watch in a dark room.

The best and worst thing the movie has going for it is it’s central villain, The Blind Man, played Stephen Lang (who remains the biggest redeeming feature of Jame Cameron’s Avatar). The decision to make the character blind was a stroke of genius, evoking a type of horror seen many times in survival horror games (for example, the clickers in The Last of Us or the beserker in Gears of War), but rarely sustained over a feature runtime. Carelessness can get you caught, but so can a sufficient amount of shit luck, and The Blind Man plays the role of hunter and agent of fate. His mastery of his lair and imposing physical stature compared to the panicked robbers gives him the feel of a Minotaur, where the intruders have the benefit of sight but are distinctly without a home field advantage. However, there is an unnecessary sick twist near the final act that nearly derails the character, and Lang’s performance falters at precisely this moment. Indeed, the last twenty minutes of the movie could be excised without losing much.

While it’s setups get occasionally silly (mostly involving The Blind Man’s hound), the silliness is rarely due to obvious stupid-main-character syndrome. It puts a token amount of effort into giving a backstory to two of the intruders, Rocky and Alex, and while this external motivation is a bit clumsy, it suffices to keep the film from being purely a sadistic dead teenager movie. They’ve dug their own way into this mess, but we do wish for them to make it out of it. Rocky is particularly effective, mostly due to the presence of Jane Levy, who will run this world one day (mark my words!).

Don’t Breathe has been hyped considerably, and perhaps set expectations a bit too high. It’s an effective thrill piece, but it doesn’t stick in the mind afterwards, and I’m not terribly interested in revisiting it. However, it will fit rather perfectly in the streaming queue to save for a very dark and very quiet evening.

B-

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Don’t Breathe (2016)
Directed by Fede Alvarez
Starring Jane Levy, Dylan Minnette, Daniel Zovatto, and Stephen Lang
Rotten Tomatoes (87%)

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Don’t Breathe is a simple, mostly effective thrill ride

Quick thoughts on The Birth of a Nation

The Birth of a Nation is a difficult movie to critique, simply because it’s pre-release buzz and controversy overshadow it to such an extreme degree. There’s an implicit bias to like the movie simply because of the story its telling without a white director in the chair, but Nate Parker and Jean Celestin’s history of sexual assault puts a rather strong damper on that enthusiasm. I’ll admit right away that I can’t provide an objective analysis, both because of these external pieces of knowledge and because of my own separation from the source material as a white non-American without in-depth knowledge of this corner of history, but nonetheless, I have some issues with The Birth of a Nation that don’t prevent it from being quite striking at times.

Nate Parker is credited as the lead actor, director, producer, and writer for The Birth of a Nation, and while his complete and utter ownership of the project is commendable, his position as the centre of the film shows clearly on screen. He’s a fine presence as Nat Turner, but in its laser-focus, nearly every other character feels flat. The movie finds its way to the rebellion in a very workmanlike way, piling trauma upon trauma on until an inevitable snapping point (including, uncomfortably, two major instances of sexual assault), but rarely with much nuance. Parker stumbles on the odd arresting visual along the way, such as a recurring dream sequence in the woods or a white child leading a slave on a leash, but misses just as often, such as with a recurring angelic vision of Cherryanne or a smash cut to bleeding corn. But there’s depth to the story that is mostly glossed over. As presented, Turner’s relationship to his owner Samuel, played by Armie Hammer, is a dramatic gold mine, as the two grew up together yet find their power dynamic greatly shifted when the senior Turner passes. As it stands, Samuel is a parable of deserved damnation to those who claim virtuousness by simply being “not the literal worst”, but the interpersonal dynamic isn’t fully explored. The movie also skirts the morality of the rebellion, avoiding the murders of the children of the plantations. Given the circumstances, it’s possible to make Turner a sympathetic figure even with said moral crises, but avoiding the issue entirely sanitizes the rebellion to (rightful) revenge porn. The score also seems to be something out of a costume-drama bargain bin, although it makes tremendously affecting use of Nina Simone in the late going.

While The Birth of a Nation isn’t as engrossing as it should be, it tells a story worth telling with a reasonable amount of panache. The most evocative piece of the whole work may be its title, reclaimed from an early-20th-century KKK-boosting epic. It suggests a very different birth of America, one built of a very different revolution. For that alone it earns points.

B-

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The Birth of a Nation (2016)
Directed by Nate Parker
Starring Nate Parker, Armie Hammer, Aja Naomi King, and Penelope Ann Miller
Rotten Tomatoes (74%)

Quick thoughts on The Birth of a Nation