Friday, October 21, 2016

Blind man's bluff: on Don't Breathe and a very unlikely predator

[my latest Mint Lounge column]

In a recent column, I wrote about how weird it feels – if you grew up with 1980s Hindi-film stereotypes – to see someone like Gulshan Grover playing a good guy. There was almost something comforting about those old-style villains back in the day – you knew their function in the story, you knew that slime and venom were their usual stock in trade. Nowadays, the lines are more blurred.

But there is also the opposite phenomenon: that of being unsettled by a movie villain who, your instincts tell you, shouldn’t be a villain.

This can be a personality-centred matter: it can mean being startled when Ashok Kumar – our beloved Dada Moni, katha-vachak of TV shows like Hum Log – was revealed to be the criminal mastermind at the end of Jewel Thief (1967). Or it can be about the associations one has with a character type. Watching the recent live-action version of The Jungle Book, despite my familiarity with the story and its assumptions, I cringed a little when Sher Khan plummeted to his death at the end. Given everything our self-centered species has done to hasten tiger extinction in the real world, it was troubling to see a tiger – no matter how malevolent – presented as a force to be destroyed (with the audience cheering Mowgli on).

Unexpected villain-predators are often to be found in the horror or suspense genres, which might contain narrative twists or fantastical elements. Monsters in horror cinema have come in all shapes and sizes, depending on the nature of the film: they can be gargoyles with flaming red eyes, but they can just as easily be cherubic children, or the sweet-looking dolls or clowns that cherubic children like to play with (there has been a whole tradition of that narrative, including The Omen, It, and the Child’s Play series).

As a longtime horror buff I have encountered a range of such antagonists over the years, but I was still blindsided (so to speak) by the one in Fede Alvarez’s creepy new film Don’t Breathe. This predator-monster is a sightless old man, known only as Blind Man in the script. He is also a former soldier. And at the start, it seems like he will be the victim, since the premise is that three youngsters have broken into his house – where he lives alone, or so we are told – to rob him.

Those kids are in for a surprise, though, and so are we viewers.

I’m spoiling nothing by telling you that Blind Man really is unsighted – the film doesn’t play an underhanded trick on us by revealing that he can see, or part-see. What it does do is to slowly, craftily turn the tables so that the hunters become the hunted, and Blind Man, who is always alert and ramrod-straight, becomes a nightmarish presence. The first time we see him up close, he is sitting up in his vest on his bed, head turned in the direction of one of the kids who has broken into his room. Despite the context of the scene, he already looks like a menacing figure here; the image is disconcerting, and the memory of it becomes more so as the film proceeds.

There are a couple of reasons why it is so disquieting to see a blind person in an aggressor’s role in a film. The first is obvious: the condition seems to demand sympathy, concern or assistance. It is
much more common, in thrillers or horror films, to see blind people being persecuted, sometimes to a point where it can become gratuitous or sadistic. A trio of endangered heroines come to mind: Audrey Hepburn in Wait Until Dark (1967), Raakhee in Barsaat ki ek Raat (1981), and Ida Lupino in Nicolas Ray’s under-watched film noir On Dangerous Ground (1951).

The second reason has to do with the nature of film-watching itself. We are seeing the images on the screen with our eyes, assessing and judging the characters, who are – most of the time – oblivious of our presence. This is why we can feel so exposed when a film unexpectedly breaks the Fourth Wall and has its characters looking straight at us, locking their eyes with ours. Conversely, when a sightless character is on the screen, we feel not just sympathy but also – perhaps on a subconscious level – a bit of relief, and a touch of superiority. They can’t see us. We are safe.

But the old man in Don’t Breathe allows us no such safety nets, as he moves swiftly through the labyrinths of his large house, the nooks and crannies of which he knows more intimately than the intruders. The inside of the house is very dimly lit, with some sections not lit at all, which means that the kids are effectively almost as blind as he is – and more disadvantaged in some ways, since his other senses have been heightened over time. Plus, he has had special forces training as an armyman, and the film makes the most of this.

Watching him, I was reminded of Pale Man in Pan’s Labyrinth, another initially sightless being who awakens from slumber and stalks his quarries through hallways and trapdoors. More improbably, I had a sudden memory flash of watching a film called Qatl in a movie hall three decades ago. In that one, Sanjeev Kumar played a blind man who carefully – and without any aid – plots the murder of his unfaithful wife, by rehearsing his movements for weeks beforehand. Qatl, as I realised when I rewatched bits of it on YouTube the other day, is a shoddy movie full of unintentionally funny scenes. But there was a special thrill in experiencing it as a child, and being mesmerised by the sound of the sightless protagonist’s cane tapping on the floor as he measures the distance to where he needs to be to get the perfect shot.

1 comment:

  1. Am I the only one who feels sympathetic for the blind character and felt satisfaction in seeing him dispose of money so decisively? I feel the subplot of the basement girl was introduced just to attach villainy to the character.

    The three robbers were just that - three robbers robing a blind man to make their money.