Warning: This entire post is one big spoiler.
Director Fede Alvarez’s summer indie horror film Don’t Breathe just completed its second week dominating at the box office, earning an estimated $19.6 million over the four day long weekend for a total of $55 million overall. The film, which tells the story of three friends (Alex, Money, and our heroine Rocky) who attempt to rob a blind veteran of his settlement money from when his daughter was killed after being hit by a car, cost only $9.9 million to make.
The conceit of the film is, as numerous critics explained (including my colleague Rich Juzwiak), savage and straightforward: the three get locked in the veteran’s (referred to only as the “Blind Man”) highly secure house, and spend the movie trying to escape. But it hinges on another central premise—one that the audience doesn’t find out about until nearly three-quarters of the way through the film: the Blind Man has kidnapped the young woman who fatally hit his daughter by accident, bound and strapped up in a harness in a room full of mattresses in his basement. It’s an unpleasant but not unreasonable heightening of the creepiness of the Blind Man. But then she is accidentally shot in the fracas of the burglars’ attempted escape, and we learn he had impregnated her and he was keeping her just until she supplied his replacement child. (Let’s remember, Ruined Women never survive horror movies.)
It’s at this point that the film leaps beyond the concrete plot of the first two acts and into the all-too-commonly-visited cinematic realm where rape is a device plucked from a catalogue of unpleasant things to up the stakes of a scene. Since the Blind Man’s original daughter-vessel is dead, he’ll have to take Rocky as his prisoner and force her give him a new child.
In the film, we watch him strap Rocky up and hoist her into the air, so that she’s helpless, hovering parallel to the ground and screaming as he cuts a hole in her pants with a pair of scissors and does some vague chemistry at a chemistry bench. He explains he’s not going to physically enter her—he’s not a pervert!—instead, he’ll insert his semen into her with a turkey baster. He says it straight out so we know: “I’m not a rapist.”
Luckily, her not-long-for-this-movie lovesick man companion Alex hobbles into the makeshift dungeon in time to stop the Blind Man from committing the unforgivable. Once Rocky is freed, she tries to kill her attempted rapist, but Alex stops her, imploring her to find momentary mercy for him for the safety of everyone involved (for what it’s worth, she is the only one in the movie ever expected to show mercy or reason). So, as a revenge substitute, Rocky shoves the baster into the Blind Man’s throat. The move feels like it was intended by the filmmakers to be a moment of catharsis in which Rocky is allowed the ultimate revenge: she gets to be a man for one moment, and rapes the rapist with his own dick. What it must feel like to be the man!
Despite Rocky’s ultimate salvation (she escapes to Los Angeles, city of surf and dreams), in Don’t Breathe, women are the things that break men—the Blind Man’s daughter’s death at the hands of a young woman leads to his shut-in life; Rocky’s desired escape from her verbally abusive mother is what influences the gang to attempt the dangerous heist; Alex and Money’s love for Rocky makes them stay in the house and leads to their deaths. Women are also possessions—the Blind Man’s daughter is more of a lost object than deceased child; he hangs up Rocky and her predecessor like sweaters in a nightmarish sex closet. They are things to blame and take blame.
After I saw the movie (which I mostly enjoyed) on Sunday, I tried to think of what a similar plot might look like if it were conceived and directed by women. It was a hard exercise, since the plot of the summer hit feels so thoroughly of and by men (Alvarez co-wrote the story with Rodo Sayagues), as has been the response to the film.
In a review for Mashable, Jeff Sneider wrote, “The Baster Scene, as it will soon be called, is beyond repulsive, and yet it manages to elevate Don’t Breathe from mere genre-offering-of-the-week to something truly disturbing and unforgettable. The moment is so out of place in an American studio movie that it should be applauded for its sheer chutzpah, as it really is the ultimate act of revenge.”
I’d argue that the narrative engine beneath the Baster Scene is actually, unfortunately one of the most familiar.