“Don’t Breathe” Ethics

I just watched the 2016 horror/suspense thriller “Don’t Breathe,” in which Stephen Lang, always excellent, plays a blind veteran whose home is invaded by three self-righteous young sociopaths who intend to rob him. The movie is the latest genre movies with ethical mind-benders concocted in the House of Raimi, as Sam Raimi, the flamboyant auteur behind “The Evil Dead,” “Xena,” the first couple Spiderman movies and especially “Drag Me To Hell,” was the lead executive producer here and Raimi’s protege, Fede Alvarez, directed and wrote the script.

How do I do this without spoiling the film for someone who hasn’t seen it? I can’t. If you intend to ever see the hit 2016 movie but have not yet, then just wait for the next post. Otherwise, read on.

“Don’t Breathe” becomes one of those monster movies where you start rooting for the monster, and even that doesn’t encompass the  ethical morass the movie creates. Imagine “Wait Until Dark”except that the imperiled blind woman (Audrey Hepburn) is replaced by a blind Steven Seagal (the younger, thinner version), or maybe Billy Jack, and he beats the living daylights out of  or kills the three middle-aged male thugs—including a creepy evil mastermind played by Alan Arkin— who get into his house.

Got that? Okay, now replace the three thugs with three attractive twenty-somethings, including a troubled young woman trying to start a new life after an abusive childhood.

The problem is, they are still thugs, just young, pretty thugs. We see them gleefully ransacking other homes before they pick out Lang’s to rob of the $300,000 they think he has on the premises, a recent settlement for the wrongful death of his daughter. All three of the home invaders appear smug, devoid of values, and thoroughly heartless.

Yet the movie appears to want us to fear for their lives once it is clear that the blind man can kill with his bare hands and is an amazingly good shot based on echo-location, or something. Trapped in the house, the two surviving kids—the kinder, gentler of the three, but neither kind nor gentle enough to figure out that robbing a blind man isn’t an ethical thing to do—find themselves hunted, playing a deadly game of blind-man’s buff.

I felt no sympathy for them at all, and found myself bothered by that. Their attempted crime and motives were cruel and irredeemable, but they didn’t deserve to die as a consequence—did they?  Nonetheless, I realized as I watched that if they did die, they had nobody to blame but themselves, and more than that, the blind man was ethically within his rights to kill them, not just legally, but ethically.

When someone chooses a victim to abuse, and finds that the victim is not only capable of defending himself or herself, but able to do with frightening and punishing efficiency, my visceral reaction is good. Every bully, thief and abuser should think about that possibility, which is why it is societal useful when such condign table-turning occurs. Imagine if the kidnapped kid in the recent Chicago atrocity had, after being tortured, neatly extracted himself from his bonds and dispatched all four of the vicious assholes who had tormented him to wherever it is that the blighted souls of people who do what they did go. Would anyone blame him? Would anyone not applaud?

Cleverly and diabolically, the plot reveals that the blind man is not exactly the Delai Lama either, and tries to commit heinous acts on the young woman. This factor is supposed to change our loyalties, but his depravity doesn’t make what the home invaders do any less wrong, or their fate any less earned. And as soon as the young woman began berating the bland man with genuine anger, she lost me for good. She’s angry at him? Who invaded whose home? Who tried to steal the life savings of a blind man? She is ethically estopped from complaining. She’s in his house, and he’s disabled, or she thought he was. If the Castle Doctrine ever applied, this is it.

I’d love to have a mixed generational group view the film, and have a discussion about the ethics involved immediately afterwards. How much of a viewer’s sympathies are based on identification with the characters? Are young audience members more likely to feel fear for the three young burglars? Do seniors tend to root for the blind veteran? What would be the partisan divide?

By the end, when everyone involved had suffered greatly, I felt sorry for the blind man, and he was the only one I felt sorry for.

I’m not at all sure that was the most ethical response.

10 thoughts on ““Don’t Breathe” Ethics

  1. If you think that has ethical complications, see how you feel about a one-of-a-kind film, Paul Verhoeven’s entry in the upcoming Foreign Film category of the Academy Awards,Elle.

  2. If we consider the robbery is a one off event and the perpetrators repent when they suddenly find themselves victims of unmerciless retribution by their supposedly vulnerable target you could feel for them but that doesnt happen in the real world. Persons of such character are likely to perpetrate a similar crime if they feel they avoided significant harm. The next time the potential victim may not be as capable of defending themself.

    Would it be ethical to let them escape so they can destroy another’s life. No. Such is moral luck.

  3. The turkey baster scene was a little over the top. I suppose that would make the movie appealing to the millennials I guess. They just had to make the blind vet villainous to justify killing him.

      • I think self defense killing by the blind man would have been a rightful and appropriate act, but kidnapping and the artificial insemination are illegal, unethical, cruel and unusual. The blind man is clearly off his rockers, he would be ill equipped to raise a baby, and he would either keep the woman captive and force her to care for the baby, or murder her. I think the blind man would justify his actions with 2A Sicilian Ethics and 7 Tit for tat. He admits to being compromised by saying that a man would do anything once he knows God doesn’t exist.
        To sum up, I think death would be a better outcome, then having to bear the seed of a deranged man and having your existence uncertain or living nightmare.

        P.S. Just watched the movie, I liked it, it felt like a fresh horror/survival. Apparently there will be a sequel, can’t imagine what they’ll come up, but Sam Raimi is excited. There better be a Olds Delta 88 in there.

    • “Don’t Breath” is sort of a guilty pleasure movie. It will get an Academy Award for nothing but horror movies seldom do. I am hoping “Hacksaw Ridge” will get an award for something besides sound but probably not considering the Academy.

  4. Jack said: “Imagine if the kidnapped kid in the recent Chicago atrocity had, after being tortured, neatly extracted himself from his bonds and dispatched all four of the vicious assholes who had tormented him to wherever it is that the blighted souls of people who do what they did go. Would anyone blame him? Would anyone not applaud?”

    Of course he would be blamed…blamed, vilified and probably sued. Black lives matter, right? Obviously much more so than mentally disabled white lives.

  5. This reminds me of the recent (and future sequel) ‘John Wick.’ Similar circumstances (bad guys invade supposedly powerless victim’s home and commit mayhem, but find the victim is anything but) with all parties morally bankrupt from beginning to end.

    John Wick was so over the top it was funny, in a black humor sort of way (Russian Mafia “kill anyone who inconveniences me” boss dropping everything when he hears who the victim-turned-vigilante is, a priceless moment), but I don’t hear that sort of redeeming (if it is that) characteristic in this movie.

    I am afraid I have no (zero) sympathy for a criminal who whines about the ‘unfair’ outcome when the victim gets the upper hand. The criminal had the choice to NOT commit the criminal act: the victim had no such choice. Break down my door and I will have no qualms (then or ever) shooting you dead, as I must assume you meant to do the same to me and my family.

    This is the essence of the Castle Doctrine (at least in Texas): that by the time you can assess the criminal’s intent it will be too late to prevent great harm. Sure, the crook might just tie us up and rob us. I am not willing to take that chance with my wife and kids.

    This sort of movie can be a fun (if gruesome) ride, but I do not think I will pay to see it.

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