By amber BroYles
I miss the days when thrillers actually said something, tapped into some deep-seated social issue. I miss the days when social commentary could be subtle yet provocative, a la Dawn of the Dead or The Crazies. There's a real elevation in story when a filmmaker can sneak those ideas in. Having said that, I'd like to point your attention to a little(ish) film that came out this year, Don't Breathe. Not only does it employ wonderful filmmaking techniques but it also uses current social issues as a backdrop for a grindhouse-esque thriller.
Fede Alvarez’s Don't Breathe follows a group of three Detroit burglars as they attempt to rob an old blind veteran out of his supposed six-figure settlement. What kind of settlement might you ask? The kind a person gets when a rich girl accidentally kills said person’s daughter. The group breaks in but things go horribly, horribly wrong. You should never underestimate a veteran despite his distinctive lack of vision. The criminals learn firsthand that once a person is trained as a soldier they’re always a soldier.
The sound design is brilliant. Alvarez knew exactly when to use music and sounds to amplify the tension. On the flip side, he knew exactly when to use silence to the same effect. There’s a nice mixture of ambient drones, quiet subtle music, and silence that allowed the characters’ breathing and suppressed screams to take center stage.
Plot-wise, the story is a trip. It lulls you into a false sense of security. It distracts you with transparent foreshadowing. Then bam, the truth of the situation is revealed though it was there all along hidden behind clever framing and lighting. It’s refreshing to see a filmmaker that uses the camera to their advantage. The clues are there all along you simply have to look past the obvious. These layers make the reveal all the more enticing and, frankly, horrifying.
On top of that, Alvarez didn’t shy away from America's national crisis; the desperation that is modern life and the decay of the American dream. In this film, there are no family units. The parental figures are either absent or destroyed beyond recognition. There are no jobs thus no money. There is no security emotional, financial, or otherwise. The world is literally crumbling around the characters in the form of run-down buildings, empty neighborhoods and roads, and rusty old vehicles. They have nothing to look forward to except more decay.
The most important element of the theme lies in the foil characters. Rocky hopes this big score will allow her to escape her alcoholic deadbeat mother and run away with her kid sister to California. The Blind Man has lost everything, his sight, his daughter, and his belief in God. He's a lonely, broken man desperate to get back at least one thing he lost, a child. So we have Rocky, desperate to preserve what she has and the Blind Man desperate to get back what he lost.
Unfortunate for him, this break-in doesn't just throw a wrench into his plans but destroys the whole machine. There’s a reason he doesn't move out of his dead neighborhood. There's a reason he keeps half a million dollars in his house. There's a reason the basement is locked up like Fort Knox. There's a reason he really, really, really doesn't want anyone down there. Trust me, it's not what you're thinking. It's a million times worse. Also, unfortunate for him, we have a young woman just as desperate to escape her terrible life as he is to start a new one.
Truly, despite its technical triumphs, where Don't Breathe really shines is in its ability to tap into something deeper. Still, I can appreciate that the themes aren’t so in your face. Like I stated above, this film seems very simple but if you look beyond there’s something greater. That understated quality makes it so Alvarez isn’t boasting. He’s not pretentious about it. He’s not drawing attention to the deeper meaning. It's a good old violent thriller with a dash of social commentary. That’s the best thing a thriller could be and, personally, the only thing a thriller should be.
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