I’m not exactly sure when or why I started disliking Stephen Lang. I haven’t seen a lot of his work, and I didn’t recall him being in Manhunter all those years ago, but there was one movie I actually hated him in, or a TV show, or something. No idea, though. I know it was before Avatar, a movie that most people now, thankfully, regard as being mostly crap. I think it’s something stupid, like his face. I always have this feeling that he looks childish and petulant whenever I see him – like I said, stupid. And it’s because of him specifically that I avoided watching Don’t Breathe. I won’t go out of my way to never watch a movie Lang is in, though – the only moviemaker I refuse to watch these days is Kevin Smith, and my dislike of Lang is nowhere near that bad. Whatever. I ended up watching Don’t Breathe at the weekend, so here we are.
I knew next to nothing about this movie going in – I didn’t even know the basic premise before a couple of weeks ago when a friend and I discussed what he’d seen that week. The only thing I did hear was that it had a shocking ending. Cue the ubiquitous exclamation point! I figured it would be some kind of twist ending that would come out of nowhere, or better yet, a revelatory Shyamalanic ending that would force you to go back and inventory all the plot points to make sure it wasn’t just an audience cheat. Turned out to be nothing of the sort, but I’ll get to that.
The story here, by Fede Alvarez (the horrible Evil Dead remake) and Rodo Sayagues, pits three thieves, who break into people’s homes and fence their stuff for money, against a blind Iraq war vet (Lang) and realize they’ve bitten off more than they can chew. The good thing about this setup is that it throws up a moral dilemma early on when the bad stuff starts to go down in The Blind Man’s home. And yeah, Lang’s character is named The Blind Man in the credits. Names here are not the forte of the writers – the female lead, played by Evil Dead remake’s Jane Levy, is named Rocky. Alex is the preppie teen who facilitates the burglaries, and the third member is a streetsy type named Money. Yep. Money. As bad as that is, Rocky’s little sister is named Diddy. For anyone reading this who happens to be Scottish, I’ll say that the only Diddies here are Alvarez and Sayagues. Ho ho. I like being given choices to make as an audience member, and in Don’t Breathe you can either go through the movie thinking that these three punks are getting what they deserve, or you can think that when you break into someone’s place and steal their stuff, there’s probably an upper limit as to what punishment fits the crime, and maybe this isn’t it.
On a serious note, the movie’s story has strong echoes of the tragic Byron Smith situation that happened here in Minnesota on Thanksgiving Day of 2012, where two teenagers were gunned down by a homeowner after they had broken into his home. If you’re interested in reading, here’s a link. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Byron_David_Smith_killings It was hard for me to watch this movie and not think of this story, so I naturally wonder if it formed the basis of Don’t Breathe. In the end it doesn’t matter – there’s no prerequisite for watching the movie, and it can stand up for itself. Getting back to the movie’s moral compass, it is made a little easier on the audience by showing the plight of Rocky as she struggles to raise her little sister right while they both live with their piece of shit mother and her current boyfriend. Sure, you want Rocky (a cute American-style blonde) to succeed, but the movie still makes you think twice about your level of support.
But of course, they break into the house when they hear The Blind Man has squirreled away the proceeds resulting from an out of court settlement arising from the hit and run death of his only child – $300,000 apparently. After a tense, but overlong, sequence they break into the house, then proceed to wake up the sleeping Lang. The good thing here is that events move quickly enough to produce a situation that makes a quick escape impossible. This is where most of the audience are on Lang’s side. He’s the guy who isn’t doing anything to anybody, he has a sympathetic angle. Not only is he blind from serving his country, he also lost his beloved daughter, and he lives in the shittiest neighbourhood in Detroit. How shitty is it? It’s so shitty that not even low life gangbangers live there. Then these punks target him?! Seriously. You’d want to give these assholes some of their medicine, right?
But Don’t Breathe isn’t Panic Room. Once Lang turns the tables on the home invaders, he’s only after one thing: death and vengeance. It’s here you start to wonder about the morals at play here – but when Rocky and Alex finally get to the basement …
For me, this was almost too much of a gimmick. Obviously, I’m not going to tell you what’s in the basement, but it didn’t completely work for me. As well as the plot device itself, it almost comes too early in the movie. What should have been a revelatory End of Act 2 moment, feels like it hits the midpoint instead, and the movie just never feels balanced from that point on. Both before and after this, the movie is a repetitive game of cat and mouse. The basement revelation scene should have been a game-changer in terms of plot, but all it does is make you see The Blind Man in a different light. It fails to put a spin on the direction of the story, which is just dumb. It’s a poor choice by Avarez and Sayagues, and the movie never recovers fully from it, in my opinion. And that “shocking” ending – it isn’t really an ending at all, it’s something that happens close to the end of Act 2, and to me, it was more funny than anything else, and my reaction just kind of pulled me out the movie long enough for it to be distracting.
I can’t dump on Don’t Breathe all that much, though. As far as follow up movies go, Alvarez improves over his vastly inferior Evil Dead remake, but there’s nothing particularly interesting, unique, or exciting about it. There’s no supernatural horror, no extreme violence or gore, but the elements all together don’t produce a bad movie. It’s watchable, but ultimately forgettable, and it didn’t turn me into a Stephen Lang fan either.