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.