Some years ago I was robbed and tied up in my house. The three desperate people who did this were drug addicts and prostitutes and although what they did to me was violent and deeply unpleasant, I had an enormous amount of pity for them. Some years I wrote a short script loosely based on my experience and started to assemble a crew to shoot the film. Struggling to find a sound recordist I contacted one woman who sounded like she could be just right for my team. Initially she sounded interested so I sent her the script. I didn’t hear anything for a few days and then got a very angry reply from her. She said she could never work on such a story as it was “just horrible people doing horrible things to other horrible people”.
That line popped into my head whilst I was watching Don’t Breathe. The plot is about three poor, young robbers who decide to break into a blind man’s house and rob him, well, blind. However it turns out the victim isn’t as vulnerable as they think. Director Fede Alvarez, who did an almost against the odds good job of directing the Evil Dead remake, has put together a fantastically tight, well structured horror thriller. He clearly understands the basics of geography at a location as his camera whips around the house so we can understand what this narrative labyrinth has in store for us. We see the layout, where each of the characters are and how the blind man operates within his world. Furthermore the film looks beautiful and exploits its initial idea to the full with some good twists and shocks. Alvarez has also assembled a small but dedicated team of actors with the near silent Stephen Lang doing particularly well with great physical, imposing presence even if he can’t see a thing.
However, are we just watching a film about horrible people doing horrible things to other horrible people? The three robbers are pretty scummy. We all know that Detroit has been suffering for years since the manufacturing industry has collapsed around there, and poverty can cause good people to do all kinds of bad things to get out of their dire situation. But robbing a blind man? How are we meant to have sympathy for these protagonists? They do have Jane Levy in the lead who is a likeable and charismatic actor, and her character’s background shows her trying to escape her trailer trash life with her little sister… but still! Its a blind man! On the flip side, without going into too much detail, the blind man in question has his own secrets which stop us rooting for him. Although again his actions, however warped, are based on a demand for justice so we don’t entirely hate him either.
The upshot of all this is that we have crooks who are doing something terrible for slightly good reasons and a disabled man who is doing something awful also for slightly (although not very much) good reasons. Who, exactly am I meant to be rooting for in this film? It does somewhat undermine the tension (which in every other way is beautifully done) when you don’t really care about anyone coming out on top of this terrible situation. Its still a fine film in many ways though… I just couldn’t give a monkeys.
I replied to that sound recordist by the way. I said that I was sorry to hear that she didn’t like my script, and that what I had written was actually true and had happened to me. I got a further reply from her where I could almost hear the angry brakes screeching to halt as she tried to back peddle her venom and have some asked about what happened to the characters after the short had finished. I never replied. But you know what? I could understand where she was coming from? Sometimes it is hard to understand why people want to tell these dark stories like mine and like Don’t Breathe. Sometimes it is hard to have sympathy for the characters and their actions within them.