Guest Author: Laura Kremmel
“Wait, is he blind?”
“That’s kind of fucked up to rob a blind guy, isn’t it?”
“Just ‘cause he’s blind don’t mean he’s a saint, bro.”
These opening lines summarize the plot of the 2016 box-office hit, Don’t Breathe, directed by Fede Alvarez, and this scene appears in every trailer for the film. It demonstrates a sadly common reaction and attitude towards those with visual impairments, and other disabilities: a double-take, discomfort, pity, and disengagement (or, worse, repulsion and recoil). Blindness is almost a deal-breaker for the speakers, thieves planning their next mark, and it is ironically the most ruthless of the three who exposes their assumptions with the third line.
The three thieves (Jane Levy, Dylan Minnette, and Daniel Zovatto) break into the house of a man (Stephen Lang) who has received a large settlement after his daughter is killed and has hidden the cash in his dilapidated house in a deserted Detroit neighborhood. They target him for all of these reasons. The fact that he’s also a blind war vet becomes an added bonus: easy prey, if pathetic. They presume he will be an easy mark that will bring their careers as thieves to a fruitful end. However, “The Blind Man” (that’s the only name he gets) is not only capable of defending himself, but of hunting them down one by one. In the depths of his house, they discover that he’s hiding more than money. Critics are saying this twist sets the film apart, but I have no interest in discussing it here. Any other spoilers throughout this post involve the details of the film-long chase, which I don’t feel would detract from a first viewing. The film is an experience.
The name, The Blind Man, places an emphasis on the film’s subversion of our expectations for that label and the assumptions that go with it. More problematically, it also reduces this character to his disability, denying him an identity independent of his impairment and negating any other injuries he may suffer. Disability studies critiques both interpretations as part of the same problem: a shallow reduction of a character with a disability to a plot device. Responses from the visually impaired community—voiced by Dominick Evans—criticize the film for two central issues: the use of a blind character in a position of pity, degeneracy, and/or monstrosity and the casting of an actor without visual impairment to play a blind character. I agree with Evans, who writes, “Every time a disabled character is presented in films or on television, the disability community either gains greater understanding because people are educated on issues of ableism and oppression, or it leads to even more ableism and oppression,” adding that The Blind Man presents a predominantly negative, ableist view of disability. Individuals with disabilities have a long history of being depicted as monsters—physical disability equated to mental and moral disability—and this film certainly depicts The Blind Man as monstrous, even animalistic as he chases the young thieves through his house. The film can be read as a damaging reminder of how conservative horror can be.
Underneath these significant problems, however, lies an alternative reading of Don’t Breathe: that the film exposes and punishes assumptions about visual impairment and that The Blind Man demonstrates a more practical and realistic attitude about disability, one that is encouraged by disability studies.
I think it’s also worth noting that Alvarez claims to have been conscious of what Evans is talking about. In an interview, he said, “Blind people in movies are often patronized and are shown in a way, like, ‘Aw, poor fellow. Aw, he’s always nice. He’s a wise man,’ and all those things. So we liked to turn that around. And also, just to be respectful to that community, we didn’t want to portray a guy that has super hearing, right? [Blind people] don’t have super senses, they just pay attention more. We did a lot of research in that world, just to make sure we portrayed that character in a fair light” (Rife). Whether or not he succeeded is another matter, but he does put this out into the open.
What I have read from bloggers on disability in this film has so far been based on the trailer. Let’s talk about that trailer
It boasts, “In the land of the dark, the blind man is king” suggesting a grotesque “festival of fools” role reversal staged by those with power to humor, humiliate, and infantilize those without power. By giving them a day in which they—peasants and “fools”—feel empowered, the idea is that they will behave themselves the rest of the year. The tagline implies that the blind man (and those with visual impairments) is being given a day to be king, a demeaning chance to pretend to have power. There’s issue number one.
One other aspect of that trailer condemns it as an ableist depiction of disability. There is a scene—a great, will-be-classic scene—in which the blind man cuts the lights in the basement. In the trailer, just as he is about to do this, he says, “Now, you see what I see.” He’s talking about his own condition in terms of sight and projecting it onto others, demonstrating a view of life as visual, what David Bolt calls “ocularcentrism”: even without sight, implying that he sees darkness is still a prioritization of sight. Bolt equates this to the ableist view that those with visual impairments “see with one’s hands or ears” (“Not Forgetting” 1109). It’s a view that suggests the only way to understand and exist in the world is through seeing and that taking that away assigns sight to other senses. In this context, removing sight also results in horror, implying that his experience of the world is also one of horror. There’s issue number two.
Here’s what really happens. The tagline does not appear and is not said anywhere in the film. And the blind man says nothing when he cuts the lights, clearly prioritizing hearing, if anything. These lines have no place within the actual narrative of the film, and I think this makes all the difference.
The blind man, unlike so many characters with visual impairments and other disabilities, does not think of the world in terms of sight, does not show signs of missing his sight, and does not appear to suffer because of his impairment. Sight does not hold a place of priority in his world view. He’s damaged because of potential PTSD (another issue altogether) but most of all because of the death of his daughter and subsequent loss of justice, as Gwen so astutely discussed in her post. He is neither a victim nor a villain because of his blindness but because of other injuries and injustices. Without the sight-centered line of dialogue from the trailer, he shows no sign that he considers hearing or smell as a replacement for sight, he simply has heightened sensitivity to sound and smell (unrealistically so) within a space he knows well. Though he doesn’t rely on or value sight, he knows his attackers do. By cutting the lights, he punishes their sight-centered interpretation of him and the world and pokes it full of holes. In what is one of the most visually innovative and terrifying scenes I’ve seen in a recent horror film, the audience watches a night-vision version of the thieves helplessly feeling their way through the pitch-black basement, eyes eerily dilated.
In this scene, the film also makes audience members conscious of our own sight-centered attitudes and ability to stare at those with disabilities—in this scene, we watch the characters with the full knowledge that (as in any film but more so in this one) they cannot see us stare (Garland-Thomson). Though high-volume breathing can be heard throughout the film, we never lose that “don’t look away” feeling. The film makes other moves to infantilize the audience’s reliance on sight with an almost cartoonish zoom-in on a hammer on the wall as the thieves explore, as if to say, “look, LOOK, notice this.” We spend the film waiting for it to be used (and we’re pretty sure for what), so that we turn away at the last minute, wanting but not wanting to see hammer connect with skull. Sight is our weakness as well.
A recent staff discussion post on Wired.com includes criticism of how “stupidly rendered” and unbelievable the three thieves are as they break into the house and into the locked door where the money is kept, banging the cellar door (loud), breaking a window (really loud), talking in a normal tone (hello, really super loud). Yes, these things are stupid. But, they’re not unbelievable. This is typical, often unintentional ableist behavior towards those with visual impairments: they’re frequently talking right in front of them as if they weren’t there, often because the speaker is unsure and doesn’t want to offend the individual (Bolt, Metanarrative 9). Despite the widespread (and true) belief that, in the absence of one sense, the other senses become heightened with practice, they treat one disability as if it encompasses all disabilities. What’s more, the thieves act noticeably louder when The Blind Man is out of their sight—as if, because they can’t see him, he can’t hear them—further demonstrating their reliance on this sense and inability to function or imagine beyond it.
The Blind Man’s name thus exposes our fixation on his disability and our limited ability to recognize individuals beyond their disabilities. I don’t see The Blind Man reproducing these attitudes. In fact, he systematically rips them to shreds. Blindness appears to have little to do with his self-identity and everything to do with how others identify him. Without giving anything away, I’m saying that this character is reprehensible, is a monster, a victim, a villain, and everything the film accuses him of being. But these more accurate labels have nothing to do with his blindness.
Bolt, David. The Metanarrative of Blindness: A Re-reading of Twentieth-Century Anglophone Writing. The University of Michigan Press, 2014.
—. “Not Forgetting Happiness: The Tripartite Model of Disability and its Application in Literary Criticism.” Disability and Society, vol. 30, no. 7, 1103-1117.
Evans, Dominick. “Don’t Breathe, Ableism, and Non-Disabled Indifference.” Dominickevans.com. Aug. 16, 2016. http://www.dominickevans.com/2016/08/dont- breathe-ableism-and-non-disabled-indifference/
—. “Don’t Breathe Uses Blindness as a Plot Device While Casting a Seeing Actor.” Center for Disability Rights Blogs. Aug. 22, 2016. http://cdrnys.org/blog/advocacy/dont-breathe- uses-blindness-as-a-plot-device-while-casting-a-seeing-actor/
Garland-Thomson, Rosemarie. “The Politics of Staring: Visual Rhetorics of Disability in Popular Photography.” Disability Studies: Enabling the Humanities. Ed. Sharon L. Snyder, Brenda Brueggemann, Rosemarie Garland-Thomson. MLA, 2002, 56-75.
Rife, Katie. “Don’t Breathe’s Fede Alvarez on reversing our horror expectations” A.V. Club. Aug. 27, 2016. http://www.avclub.com/article/dont-breathes-fede-alvarez-reversing-our- horror-ex-241554
Wired Staff. “We Need to Talk about that Awful Don’t Breathe Twist.” Wired. Sept. 2, 2016. http://www.wired.com/2016/09/dont-breathe-twist-talk/
Laura Kremmel is a visiting assistant professor at Lehigh University. Her research embraces a love of Gothic and Romantic literature and the recent popularity of the medical humanities, particularly the history of medicine. She received an PhD in English from Lehigh in 2016 and an MLitt in Gothic Literature from Stirling University in 2010. Her interests include Gothic Literature (Romantic to Contemporary), Romantic Literature, Victorian Literature, Medical Humanities, History of Medicine, Disability Studies, Mental Health in literature, Composition/First-Year Writing, Visual Culture, Horror Film/TV, and Editing Practices. She has recently published an article on Gothic configurations of disability in European Romantic Review and is co-editor of The Handbook to Horror Literature (Palgrave, forthcoming). For more, see: https://laurakremmel.