The Best Suspense Movie of The Decade: Don’t Breathe

In the 2013 suspense horror Don’t Breathe the lines of good and bad are blurred

The new Netflix release Don’t Breathe (2016) opens with Rocky’s (Jane Levy’s) bloody body being dragged down the street. This does nothing to dissipate the tension that runs throughout the movie.

Far from the stereotypical horror, Don’t Breathe blurs the lines of good and bad. Director Fede Alvarez does not rely on supernatural horrors, instead he shows us that the most frightening things exist in real life.

Reunited with Levy, who also played the protagonist in his 2013 movie Evil Dead (a contender for the best horror movie of the decade), Alvarez creates a complicated relationship between desire, crime, and ultimately, the will to survive.

Don’t Breathe follows three thieves: Rocky, Alex (Dylan Minnette), and Money (Daniel Zovatto) as they enter the home of an Iraq veteran (Stephen Lang) and attempt to steal his money.

three thieves

 

The thieves are surprisingly easy to sympathise with bar the paper gangster Money, who complicates the robbery by bringing a gun. Alvarez uses Alex to depict the moralistic burglar: he is outraged that Money has brought a weapon, and wonders aloud how it will effect their jail sentence if caught.

Rocky’s home life is less than desirable. She needs to steal from the veteran to take her sister away from her alcoholic mother. This desire leads her to travel further and further into the depths of the man’s house, and discover more horrors along the way.

Alex is more of a mystery. His main motivation appears to be quick cash, and the crush he is harboring for Rocky, which Money quickly shoots down.

‘You think just because you jerk off to her Instagram selfies, that makes you a Romeo?’

In Alvarez’ world everything comes together. At least at first.

Alex father works for a home security company, so they can break into the man’s house without a sound. The man is a reclusive veteran who lives on a street full of abandoned houses meaning the three thieves can enter undetected. Coincidentally, the man is blind.

Any hope of a quick burglary unravels when the trio enter the house.

Money gases the old man to sleep in his own bed. Minutes later the old man appears in the living room, asking, ‘Who, who’s there?’

money pulls gun
Money pulls a gun on the veteran

The audience is almost fooled into thinking the man is a feeble pensioner. Until he attacks Money.

Don’t Breathe is heavy on the visuals and the sound effects. There is scarcely any dialogue as the tables turn on the thieves and it becomes clear that they exist within the blind man’s world. Every movement, every breath, is a step closer to death.

The most memorable scene is one in which the vet flips the electricity switch. He then uses objects he has placed around the basement (a fan here, a piece of wood there) to maneuver around, while Rocky and Alex are running scared. In the darkness their eyes are wide with fright.

 

 

Stephen Lang is perhaps better known for his stage work, but might be recognised for his role in Avatar (2009). His role in Don’t Breathe is certainly a delicate one: his clouded eyes and tense shoulders make him look haunted, and as his backstory unravels, they become representative of the monster he is.

Jane Levy is the perfect counterpart to Lang. When his character is horrific, she is horrified. Ultimately, Don’t Breathe is a battle of wits between Rocky and the veteran, with the audience backing Rocky. Her desire for the better life for herself and her sister urges her forward, much to the dismay of Alex.

‘Rocky. The door’s right fucking there. We can leave right now.’

In the moment where she could leave, Rocky stays and shows herself to be a moralistic person worthy of the audience’s respect. As the movie progresses, the blind veteran falls further from the idealised picture of the victimised elderly man, and becomes a villain in his own right.

‘There’s nothing a man cannot do when he accepts the fact that there is no God.’

 

What is most interesting about Don’t Breathe is the power balance between the two opposing forces. It is a fresh take on the prototypical horror movie, in which the death of the protagonist is a foregone conclusion.

 

 

 

‘The Long Walk’: Stephen King’s Version of a Dystopian World

King’s dystopian world ‘The Long Walk’ operates on an opt-in basis.

While writers like Suzanne Collins and Margaret Atwood define their dystopian worlds by the lack of choice the characters have, Stephen King’s The Long Walk operates on an opt-in basis. In King’s vision of the future his protagonist Raymond Garraty, along with 99 other teenage boys, are chosen from a pool of applicants to participate in the annual long walk, a competition which ends with only one winner: the sole survivor.

The boys are followed by a group of armed guards who give the participants a warning if they walk slower than the stipulated four miles an hour for more than thirty seconds. Three strikes and you are out. In King’s world teens are murdered where they stand in a competition they volunteered for.

The walk is overseen by The Major, and the event is televised in major cities. Swarms of onlookers cheer as the teens become increasingly exhausted and suffer mental fatigue as they see their peers picked off one by one, fearful that it is them next. A day into the walk, Garraty is shocked and pleased to see:

a huge sign, letters with pine boughs across the front read:

GARRATY’S OUR MAN!!!

Aroostook County Parents’ Association

The reader wonders why thousands of teenage boys subject themselves to the walk, knowing that their chances of winning are infinitesimal. Unlike dystopian novels which present a moral message on the perils of treating women as a commodity (The Handmaid’s Tale), separating society into sectors (Brave New World), and banning the distribution of information (Fahrenheit 451), King does not create the walk for any other purpose than entertainment.

‘Walk or die, that’s the moral of this story.’

King’s story feeds on greed and the demand for engaging television. The boys apply for the walk because the prize is anything they desire, a stake just high enough to risk their life for. The community cheers the walkers on and watches them on television because they have been desensitised to gratuitous violence, and the American desire for more more more leads them to applaud the 100 boys for walking to their death. This twisted desire for entertainment means that Garraty is hailed as an all-American hero, ‘Maine’s own,’ willing to undertake the grueling task of dying for the sake of the public’s enjoyment.

The characters, as young as they are (Garraty is only sixteen), seem to be aware of their dire situation, which makes the premise all the more shocking. One walker asks, ‘There was a guy last year that crawled for two miles at four miles an hour after both of his feet cramped up at the same time, you remember reading about that?’ As the story goes on, King adds the arrogance of 100 teenagers to the list of why the walk was possible in the first place. The reader wonders whether anyone would have signed up to a girls only long walk.

Despite all of this, I am willing to suspend disbelief for a dystopian novel, and especially a dystopian novel as good as King’s. He fleshes out the characters and creates relationships with such realism that the reader is shocked when, having taken three warnings, Olson is murdered by the guards. The reader feels the joy of the walkers when an onlooker manages to give them watermelon without the guards intercepting it.

Like most of King’s novels, the ending is harrowing. Having outlasted his peers and won the walk, Garraty imagines that:

The dark figure beckoned, beckoned in the rain, beckoned for him to come and walk, to come and play the game. And it was time to play the game. There was still so far to walk.

The need for more continues as the delirious Garraty wanders off into the distance, unaware that he has won his prize because he cannot see past the need to go on, to strive for more in a consumerist world where even death has become a commodity that can be sold to the attentive viewer.

 

 

 

 

 

Delirium, Hallucinations, And Man’s Insignificance: A Review of ‘Terra Incognita’

None of Nabokov’s intensity is lost in Terra Incognita. The story follows the delirious Valliere (the narrator) and his longtime friend Gregson as they catch insects on their journey from Zonraki to the Gurano Hills. 

I was scanning a book shop shelf for Lolita’s predecessor The Enchanter when I caught sight of a book so slim I almost skimmed right over it. Vladimir Nabokov’s collection Terra Incognita is far from the tomb that is Ada or Ardor: the three short stories come in at under a hundred pages and the title short story Terra Incognita is a tiny fourteen.

Having read Nabokov’s mastery of characterisation in his longer works, I wanted to see what he could do with a shorter medium. None of Nabokov’s intensity is lost in Terra Incognita. The story follows the delirious Valliere (the narrator) and his longtime friend Gregson as they catch insects on their journey from Zonraki to the Gurano Hills.

Accompanied by the Badonians and their translator Cook, the group travel further and further into the forest, with their view of the Gurano Hills being blighted by an overhanging mist. Nabokov’s depiction of delirium is well executed: he maintains the narrator’s voice and progresses the plot whilst also showing that the group’s situation is steadily worsening.

‘I kept telling myself that my head was heavy from the long march, the heat, the medley of colors, and the forest din, but secretly I knew that I was ill.’

As they continue on, Cook and the natives ‘vanished noiselessly’ into the surrounding trees. Nabokov creates a sense of growing terror as it becomes clear that Valliere has little control over the situation: the forest is a life form of its own, complete with ‘monkeys’ that ‘snapped and chattered, while a comet-like bird flashed like Bengal light, crying out in its small, shrill voice’ which adds to the narrator’s disorientation.

The fact that the plot remains a tangible thread throughout the story while the narrator is suffering from hallucinations is a credit to Nabokov’s ability to handle plot constraints. Cook returns, minus the natives, and ‘began to swear that the natives had lead him away by force and had wanted to eat him.’

Valliere, Gregson, and Cook journey on together.

‘I was tormented by strange hallucinations.’

At one point Valliere grows so weak that Gregson insists that he and Cook will carry him the rest of the way. The narrator’s hallucinations convey his desire to transport himself from the forest into Western comfort: at one point ‘A large armchair rose, as if supported from below, out of the swamp.’

Nabokov maintains the dream like qualities of the story until the very end when, having seen Cook and Gregson murder each other, Valliere emerges from his thick film of delirium to see the natural world as it is. The line ‘For the last time I saw all this distinctly, consciously, with the seal of authenticity on everything- their skinned knees, the bright flies circling over them, the females of those flies already seeking a spot for ovulation.’ There is a strange tranquility to Valliere’s death, it is as if he is detatched from the situation and can view the scene like one would view a picture in a book.

Ofcourse, nature triumphs. In the end, Valliere is just a mammal in the forest. Nabokov emphasises the insignificance of man among nature through his depiction of weather such as the overhanging mist which clouds the travelers’ thoughts and disrupts their journey. He shows that humans are ill equipped to deal with the reality that is the thriving forest through the motif of furniture: as Valliere’s health declines he hallucinates armchairs, wallpaper, and the four walls to the imaginary room which symbolises his desire for a more manageable situation.

In the denouement, Valliere is physically unable to escape from the untameable entity that is the forest, and the reader assumes that the flies that crowd Gregson and Cook’s corpses are waiting for Valliere’s, too.