Action, Blake Lively, Blind man, Drama, Dylan Minnette, Fede Alvarez, Home invasion, Horror, Jane Levy, Jaume Collet-Serra, Medical student, Mexico, Murder, Review, Robbery, Seagull, Shark, Stephen Lang, Surfing, Thriller
Don’t Breathe (2016) / D: Fede Alvarez / 89m
Cast: Jane Levy, Dylan Minnette, Stephen Lang, Daniel Zovatto, Franciska Töröcsik
You can hear the pitch even now: “What if these thieves tried to steal a lot of money from someone, and that someone was blind and he trapped them in his house and turned the tables on them?” A grateful production executive greenlights the project in seconds, and sometime later, the finished project is hitting screens with all the fanfare required of an original thriller (Don’t Breathe is being advertised and touted as a horror movie. It’s not; but more of that later.)
However, the grateful production executive clearly abdicated any responsibility for the project once he gave it the go-ahead. If he hadn’t, then maybe he could have insisted that the basic storyline, the marginally interesting characters, and the increasingly silly narrative be better developed before filming began. Sadly, it wasn’t, and the intriguing pitch that started everything off goes nowhere fast before throwing itself head first into the Comedy Zone in its last twenty minutes.
Every year the critics – and audiences – latch on to a movie they believe is a cut above the rest when it comes to other thrillers/horror movies/comedies etc. Don’t Breathe is one such movie, but as it does so little to justify its elevated importance, it’s tempting to wonder if the critics – and audiences – have seen a completely different cut of the movie; and if they have, why aren’t we allowed to see it? The basic premise is somewhat intriguing – three delinquents, Rocky, Alex and Money (Levy, Minnette, Zovatto), decide to go for broke on their next robbery/home invasion, but come up against a blind man whose resourcefulness (and unnerving ability to be in the wrong place at the right time) puts them in a life or (mostly) death situation.
Alvarez is a rising star in the horror firmament, and his remake of Evil Dead (2013) was better than expected. But here he’s in classic thriller territory, with a group of “innocents” being pursued by a relentless killer (Lang’s preternatural blind man), and finding themselves pushed beyond their limits. And though Alvarez is undoubtedly talented, here it’s obvious that he doesn’t have any answers when a script breaks its own rules – repeatedly. The blind man is referred to as an Army veteran, and because he’s played by Lang, we know he’s going to be a hard man to beat. But where a blind person’s other senses are often enhanced, here they come and go on a whim and a prayer. One minute he can hear extremely well, enough to pinpoint someone’s position in a ventilation system, the next he can’t hear a heavily wounded Minnette sneak up on him.
The problem with Don’t Breathe is that it wants to be a thrill ride with bloody (but non-horror) moments, but it forgets to add the thrills. A string of attempts to escape the house are repeatedly set up for Rocky and Alex to fail (Money exits stage left early on), and the plot’s major “twist” seems at first to be “great”, but it’s more of a way to keep the plot from collapsing in on itself (and pad out what would otherwise be a pretty meagre running time). In the end, the script, by Alvarez and Rodo Sayagues, runs out of steam and values unfortunate laughs over the muted tension it’s achieved earlier on. And as for the coda, well, let’s just say that clumsy is as clumsy does, and the end of the movie is very, very clumsy indeed.
Rating: 5/10 – with no one to care about or root for, Don’t Breathe becomes an exercise in soulless thriller tropes that let’s down the viewer continually once the blind man makes his presence felt; notwithstanding an eerie sequence in the basement when the lights go out, and some excellent production design, the movie will have long-standing fans of the sub-genre yawning at the absurdity and hamfisted nature of it all.
The Shallows (2016) / D: Jaume Collet-Serra / 86m
Cast: Blake Lively, Óscar Jaenada, Angelo José Lozano Corzo, José Manuel Trujillo Salas, Brett Cullen, Sedona Legge, Diego Espejel
As with Don’t Breathe, you can hear the pitch just as clearly: “What if a surfer, a lone woman even, gets trapped on a rock two hundred yards from land, but can’t get there because there’s a huge great shark stopping her?” And once again, a grateful production executive greenlights the project in seconds, and sometime later, the finished project is hitting screens with all the fanfare required of an original thriller. And yet…
The problem with The Shallows, however, is that, like Don’t Breathe, you don’t get a chance to really care about the main character, Nancy (Lively). We get to spend an awful lot of time with her, and while her predicament is scary enough on its own, it isn’t really enough in general terms for it all to work as well and as harmoniously as it would like. We get some back story – Nancy’s making a pilgrimage to the beach her mother, who has died recently, fell in love with twenty-five years before – but it’s very perfunctory and serves to pad out the script at the movie’s beginning. Then we have an extended section that shows just how good a surfer Blake Lively’s stunt double is, before Nancy’s leg gets chomped on and she makes it to the rock (along with an injured seagull).
And then the movie does something unforgivable: it makes Nancy’s predicament boring to watch. As if realising that having its heroine stranded on a rock with nowhere to go isn’t quite as cinematic as it hoped, the movie brings in a drunken Mexican (and brings back two surfers from earlier on), and serves them up to the shark as a way of re-engaging the audience’s interest (the drunkard’s death is particularly nonsensical, and any viewer who doesn’t hang their head in despair at the way in which he goes to his death, should give up now if they think it makes any sense whatsoever). Then it’s full speed ahead to the final showdown, Nancy vs shark, and the kind of over the top outcome that provokes laughter instead of relief.
After a string of uneven yet mostly effective thrillers starring Liam Neeson – Unknown (2011), Non-Stop (2014), Run All Night (2015) – Collet-Serra seems unable to do anything positive with Anthony Jaswinski’s tension-free script. From the decision to shoot most of the movie against a green screen (making most shots and scenes look false and oddly lit), to failing to address issues of continuity (how do the two surfers fail to see the drunkard’s remains on the beach when they come back?), Collet-Serra allows the fractured narrative to play out with barely an attempt at tightening things up, or avoiding treating the viewer like a numpty (sure, you can “stitch” a bite wound with just a couple of pieces of jewellery and not bleed out – no problem).
As the injured yet resourceful Nancy, Lively is a good enough actress that she can overcome some of the more bizarre decisions her character makes – resetting a seagull’s dislocated wing, anyone? – but for most of the time she’s either yelling in pain or shouting for help. Some of the earlier scenes are geared around showing off her figure, and there’s a particularly gratuitous surfboard-cam cleavage shot that adds nothing to the sequence it appears in, but as the movie progresses she keeps covered up and her predicament is kept to the fore – until the end when she’s required to strip back down to her bikini. We may be in the twenty-first century but in certain regards, it seems, the times they aren’t a-changin’ (or are ever likely to).
Rating: 4/10 – a thriller that plays out by the odd numbers alone, The Shallows does everything it can to fall short of expectations and commitment; with its unhappy use of CGI, and an overbearing score courtesy of Marco Beltrami, it’s a movie that brings apathy and indifference to the table in ever increasing portions.
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