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Escape From Detroit

Don’t Breathe is an effective horror flick whose least-effective elements hide its real insights.

Don’t Breathe, the new horror flick from director Fede Alvarez, opens with the flapping of wings and far-off sirens. Dawn is breaking on a deserted street, which we slowly approach from the sky. A man is dragging a blonde body through a city where everyone else seems to have vanished.

Don’t Breathe is effective if you want to shriek a little. (One especially tense scene wrung a low “Oh, daaaamn!” from my audience.) The initial setup seems a bit like Wait Until Dark: our antiheroes are a crew of twentysomething thieves in Detroit who are hatching a scheme to burgle the house of a blind Iraq veteran who won a six-figure settlement after the DUI homicide death of his daughter.

The three thieves are drawn in broad but bright strokes. Rocky (Jane Levy) has a sympathetic motive: she’s a single mom living with her own mother, who is dating a white supremacist and calls Rocky a whore in front of her little girl. Alex (Dylan Minnette) plays an especially slimy role in the gang; he has a conscience and a crush on Rocky. But she is pledged to another: Money (Daniel Zovatto), who has a dollar-sign tattoo on his neck and is basically a scuzzball. The trio have a great, tense chemistry, which even deflating soliloquies about child abuse and ladybugs can’t dispel.

As a horror movie, Don’t Breathe is a fine way to spend an hour and a half. There are plenty of nail-biting scenes playing on the veteran’s blindness—and his ability to move in the dark. The camera swings woozily as we inspect the veteran’s house. The twists unfold with satisfying sadism. There’s a powerful, physical performance from Stephen Lang as the veteran, who’s hiding more than cash and grief. Levy is an excellent scream queen—I remember especially a scene where a gun points at her for a long moment, and she seems to sway and yearn toward it, as if to say, Let it happen. The boomy music by Roque Baños is just like the boomy music in lots of contemporary horror, but better. After I walked out of the theater, every sound seemed louder and scarier; I saw images from this film when I closed my eyes. None of this is new, but why should it have to be?

The insight Don’t Breathe offers is hidden in its flaws. The film’s only real problem is its pacing. This problem begins to emerge with that ladybug speech; I’m guessing the movie’s clunky exposition (why is that newspaper article even there?) was a way of cutting its runtime to a manageable 88 minutes.

But the real pacing issue isn’t the exposition. It’s the matryoshka doll of climaxes. There’s just one ending after another after another after another. Multiple characters seem to die, but lo! they have survived, to be chased and suffer even more grievous bodily harm. And so a short film starts to feel protracted. Escape or die, y’all, but don’t just keep running in circles!

Detroit has become the capital of American horror. The golden, dread-clutched It Follows was set here, with a memorable sequence among the same gutted streets where most of Don’t Breathe takes place. Jim Jarmusch’s vampire film Only Lovers Left Alive chose Detroit for its narrative of nostalgia as addiction. Whatever the real economic condition of the Motor City today, it is her prostration that attracts these horror directors. Detroit signifies slow, unstoppable collapse, or the living past in contrast to a dying present.

Don’t Breathe uses Detroit on both a literal and symbolic level. Rocky has to get out because “Everyone else is gone.” The need for money pushes the plot because nobody has it.

And so the frustrating, repetitive unclimaxes reflect the awful Snakes and Ladders quality of the attempt to escape poverty. You make your move and get brutalized, and you get up again as soon as you can and stumble forward, because what choice do you have? Every attempt leaves you more damaged and yet you keep coming back.

Viewed through the lens of class, some seemingly random elements in the movie come together. There is one upper-class character in this movie; wait for the reveal, it’s worth it.

The veteran cherishes his own injuries: his knowledge that he is a victim, and that no one is looking out for him, makes him believe he has the right to do anything he wants. This is the robbers’ own mentality, but older, harder, more broken. The weird, out-of-nowhere paraphrase of Dostoyevsky in this movie makes more sense when you see how everyone in this film feels as abandoned and betrayed as their hometown. No institution is credible anymore except the bank. There is no God, which means not only no Judge but no Victim—no way to surrender our own cherished victimhood by entering into another’s sacrifice.

The final scene adds to the complexity of the film’s portrayal of power and powerlessness. It highlights how hard it can be to figure out who the weaker party is: we hear about “punching down” nowadays, but there are a hundred kinds of power, many masquerading as powerlessness. But all corrupting, in a hundred different ways.

Eve Tushnet is a TAC contributing editor, blogs at Patheos.com, and is the author of Gay and Catholic: Accepting My Sexuality, Finding Community, Living My Faith, as well as the author of the newly released novel Amends, a satire set during the filming of a reality show about alcohol rehab.

Editor’s note: This piece originally contained a clause implying that Wait Until Dark was not told from the villains’ perspective; in fact, it was, in part.