Posted on August 29, 2016

Don’t Breathe (2016): The Politics of Justice and the Subjectivity of Victimhood


Sometimes, I wonder if justice is blind or if it is just oblivious. In recent history, Ethan Couch received a lenient sentence after recklessly mowing down several innocent victims while intoxicated on liquor and affluenza. The former Stanford swimmer, Brock Turner received only a six month sentence after sexually assaulting an unconscious woman.[i] Shortly thereafter, Indiana University frat boy John Enochs escaped two counts of felony rape with a year of probation while David Becker received two years of probation for sexually assaulting two 18 year old girls. What are the repercussions of these lenient sentences? When did it become more important to protect a perpetrator from being branded a sexual offender than to ensure justice? How is it that a judge and/or jury came to worry more about the hopeful college experience of a young college-bound Massachusetts boy over his two 18-year-old victims?

You might ask, what does this have to do with the film, Don’t Breathe (2016)…I say everything. In the wake of national outrage after these trials, Don’t Breathe brings light to what we view as justice and who is a deserving victim. By definition, a victim is “a person harmed, injured, or killed as a result of a crime, accident, or other event or action”.[ii] However, in the eyes of a subjective public, being a victim of a crime does not concretely translate into victimhood as we see in Fede Alvarez’s film, Don’t Breathe.DontBreathe2

To aid your understanding let me give you a brief synopsis of the film. Three poor, white kids go on a home invasion spree in order to finance their getaway from Detroit’s urban jungle. They are seemingly decent kids except for Money (Daniel Zovato) who is a bit of a douche. Rocky (Jane Levy) is trying to get herself and her little sister away from their drunken, neglectful mother. Alex (Dylan Minnette) is a good kid who seems to just want to be near Rocky. The kids mistakenly think they found an easy mark in the solitary blind man who is sitting on a wad of cash. Notice, I didn’t give you the name of the blind man whose house is invaded by the trio…that is because, despite being a main character, he is credited simply as “The Blind Man” (Stephen Lang).

Victimhood becomes inverted in Don’t Breathe. [Beware of plot spoilers beyond this point]. Let us focus on the blind man for he is victimized several times throughout the film. First of all, he never achieves personhood as he is not even awarded a name in the film. As we come to learn his history, we find out that he served in the Gulf War (a forgotten war, much like he is a forgotten man) who suffered blindness after a grenade exploded nearby. We never quite understand if he suffers from Gulf War syndrome or PTSD, but the way he locks himself inside his home suggests an overwhelming need to protect himself from the outside world. After returning from war, he loses his daughter when she is killed by the reckless driving of a wealthy socialite. The rich girl is deemed innocent of any wrong-doing and the blind man is given 300,000 dollars as part of a settlement. Finally, the blind man is victimized when three hoodlums bust in his house and try to steal his money and his peace of mind. Let’s review, the blind man is let down by his country and by the justice system; his daughter is killed and his home is invaded. In his sightless world, there is no accountability for negative actions and doing the right thing is not rewarded.  Yet somehow, the blind man is painted as the bad guy pretty early in the film.


The audience aligns with the three young people who committed felony burglary and poisoned a dog. Say what?! Okay, yes we come to find out that the blind man has a few skeletons in his closet…or his basement. But couldn’t this all have been avoided if he wasn’t so systematically victimized? What is it about him that makes him a bad guy? What does this say about our value system? These three kids who forcibly invade the blind man’s home are criminals who have suffered minimally in comparison to the blind man. Do we sympathize with them because of their youth, their looks, because we see their tormentor, or is it that their indiscretions are temporary and in pursuit of a better life?  Personally, I struggled with seeing the blind man as a clear cut perpetrator, and I resisted rooting for his tormentors, hoping they didn’t escape with his livelihood.

It seems to me that the lack of justice in our society molded the blind man into the perfect movie monster. Routinely unregulated wrongs caused the blind man to retreat from a world he could not trust. His pasty white skin, glossed over eyes, cantankerous mannerisms, turned him into a surrogate for the troll under a bridge. He gave up on society and is doing nothing productive with his life; and he lost faith in humanity, which possibly is his greatest sin. His hidden secret in the basement is a misguided attempt to right the scales of justice. Perhaps if social institutions rightly identified victims and held perpetrators accountable, further negative acts on his part might have been avoided. The hard part here is dissecting who is a worthy victim. Is it the man forgotten by his country, neglected by the judicial system, out-privileged, and his sense of safety stolen—or is it the poor little female thief with the ladybug tattoo who was locked in the trunk by her mother? I guess time will only tell as art imitates life. It is no wonder we have convoluted ideas of victimhood in film when in our own world we cannot succinctly decide whether it is the intoxicated co-ed girl who passes out at a party and is assaulted who is the victim or the boy whose life would be ruined if convicted of rape and placed on the sex offender list for life?

In closing, Don’t Breathe is a suspenseful thriller that skillfully uses housebound horror to its advantage. Stephen Lang’s performance was stellar and added greatly to the tension. The film’s twists and turns kept me guessing about when things were really over. What I especially loved was that the film appeared to pay homage to horror history with shots that emulated stills from Cujo (1983), People Under the Stairs (1991), and The Blair Witch Project (1999).DontBreathe Collage

[i] The survivor of this egregious assault fires back with an open letter

[ii] Google definition:

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