Gamera Obscura: We Love DON'T BREATHE and HELL OR HIGH WATER for the Same Reason
I’ll try to keep it brief this time out. That’s because what follows is stunningly obvious -- although maybe only to you and me. Therefore, please feel free to forward this week’s column to the TPTB at the Hollywood majors. Thanks in advance.
So do you remember when everyone would complain about how trailers revealed too much? I don’t think the practice ever really stopped -- I think we all just got tired of complaining about it. Sometimes we’re wrong, though. Or at least I am.
I say this because I vividly recall my initial response to trailers for two of the best received releases here in this Northern Hemisphere summer. With a critic's hubris, I thought I knew everything I needed to know about these movies from glorified ads lasting just a couple of minutes. The most promising thing about Don’t Breathe seemed to be the elegance of its premise, its inside-out take on Wait Until Dark, with the blind character as threat rather than threatened. Still, with its youthful protagonists and its general vibe, Don’t Breathe also appeared to be the kind of run-of-the-mill horror/thriller exercise perhaps best reserved for a Netflix watch.
Hell or High Water, with its down-home title and bank-robbers-as-antiheroes approach, also felt more than a little familiar. Jeff Bridges doing his best Tommy Lee Jones seemed like it could be interesting… until I remembered that the last time I’d seen him in grizzled, lawman mode was R.I.P.D.
Of course when I eventually saw both these films on the big screen, something unexpected happened. And I’m pretty sure I’m not alone on this count.
Both pictures simply deliver way beyond what the trailers explicitly promised, and way beyond what they implicitly promised because of their kinship to so many other movies we’ve already seen. Sure, Don’t Breathe features chases through shadowy labyrinths and anthemic last-girlism, and Hell or High Water sells anti-bank populism wrapped in sentimentality. However, neither film lazily relies on such predictable elements to make them work, and in fact each of them often seems to grow tired of them, or plays with them, or renders them problematic or ambiguous.
Instead, the filmmakers in both cases keep taking us to new places, ones we can’t see coming but which make perfect sense when we arrive at them. Consider each new horror we’re forced to confront in Don’t Breathe, and how they all seem to top the previous one. And that’s in addition to the hugely satisfying false endings. Hell or High Water similarly stuffs far more thoughtful, entertaining, and original content into every nook and cranny of its running time than we could have reasonably expected. Just consider all the stock scenes (e.g., cops questioning witnesses or grabbing a bite to eat) that are enhanced by memorable minor characters and dark humor striking suddenly out of nowhere. And who could have foreseen Ben Foster’s character transforming from loudmouth bad boy to genuine badass?
In short, these movies are generous. And that’s what we want as audiences. Generosity.
Both Don’t Breathe and Hell or High Water spotlight sympathetic criminals as well as the economically downtrodden regions of the U.S. that could be said to produce them. Both, in essence, depict a depleted America with pockets of “treasure” being horded by the greedy and the monstrous. Yet that’s not why we like both films so much -- it isn’t about a particular theme resonating. It’s about pleasure working us over in unexpected ways while we sit there in the dark.
It’s the same principle that’s at work in the “Giant Man” sequence in Captain America: Civil War. We’re being given something abruptly wondrous, a bonus that tells us that a movie isn’t just a menu item on the marquee of a multiplex -- choose the dish you want and we’ll give you exactly what the text describes, no more, no less. Instead, you feel that you could not have prepared yourself for all you’re provided. Television, especially something like Game of Thrones, is becoming expert at this. You may not be crazy about everything that’s served up, and in fact even be disappointed by a good deal of it, but consistent jolts of the new and overflowing keep you tuning in.
Sometimes movies, especially blockbusters, and especially blockbusters such as X-Men: Apocalypse and Suicide Squad, with their sprawling casts and outsized villains, feel like they’re aiming for generosity. Yet what we expect from those movies going in is spectacle, so just giving us heaps of empty-calorie spectacle doesn’t make the offering generous -- it just makes it bloated. That’s probably obvious, as I stated at the outset. Yet I think some of the sharp push-back against films such as these and Batman v Superman is spawned by a kind of faux-generosity that moviegoers pick up on.
In the end, all of this mirrors the dyumanics of romantic love. Most of us have our hearts broken, again and again, by the movies. And so while we don’t necessarily fall in love with movies like Don’t Breathe -- I, for one, admire it, praise it, recommend it, but am not deeply, personally enamored with it -- if you’re a cinephile, you need something like it to appear every once in a while. It’s the kind of mainstream release that tells you to hang in there and guard your faith: there are artists out there who care about your heart and want to keep it going for a few beats more.
Gamera Obscura is a column about the ill effects of watching too many movies over too many years. Peter Gutiérrez also writes the Blockbuster Central column for Screen Education, and can be hunted down on Twitter @suddenlyquiet.