It’s the end of summer, a time when cinemas are usually relegated to being the dumping ground for the films that might once have seemed like potential blockbusters but turned out to be the forgotten stepchildren of the multiplex. This week, let’s take a look at two films that couldn’t be more different in their style and ambition: the low-budget horror thriller “Don’t Breathe,” which was a surprise smash at the box office last weekend, and the new epic romance “The Light Between Oceans,” which aims to set hearts swooning this Friday.
“Don’t Breathe” is dateworthy if you like scares and a rollercoaster ride feel to your evening, but as you’ll see below, has some R-rated aspects to it. “Light” is also dateworthy, as an almost thoroughly clean movie and starts as a romance, but takes some truly depressing turns and has a very slow pace, making it a clean date movie but not one likely to set the tone for fun in an evening.
“Don’t Breathe” might seem like it’s the weaker of the two options, since it’s “just” a nerve-jangler about three struggling Detroit teens who rob houses and fence the valuables as they attempt to save the money they need to escape to better lives in California. Director Fede Alvarez and his co-writer, Rodo Sayagues, do a great job of showing the quiet desperation of these kids’ lives and the emotional dynamic that drives their relationships to each other – two factors of character development that show that this movie has a surprising level of intelligence for the genre, and realizes the importance of making the audience invest itself in their fates.
Rocky (Jane Levy) has a little sister whom she’s desperate to help escape from the control of their alcoholic mother and loser boyfriend, but she’s also stuck with a loser boyfriend nicknamed Money (Daniel Zovatto) who says he wants to help her escape but really seems driven by his own greed and self-interest. Alex (Dylan Minette), the brains of the trio who learned how to neutralize all types of alarms thanks to his security expert father, is caught in the middle, quietly despising Money while pining for Rocky.
When Money hears from his small-time crime boss that there’s an Iraq War vet (Stephen Lang) who is hiding $300,000 in cash inside his decrepit home in an utterly desolate neighborhood, he implores the others to hit the house that night and get out of the rusting Motor City once and for all. When they discover the veteran is blind, they think that the robbery will be easier than they could possibly imagine.
What they don’t realize is the vet is driven by rage over a personal tragedy, has memorized every inch of his home’s interior and has incredible strength and heightened senses of smell and hearing. Those factors lead the trio and the audience through one gasp-inducing twist after another, creating a dose of wicked fun that makes this an instant classic in the genre, shows Alvarez to be a horror and suspense master in the making worthy of succeeding and should turn Levy in particular into a major star.
“Don’t Breathe” is certainly emotionally intense, and does feature one truly gross moment that will be offensive to those who are weak-stomached. But most of the violence is shot discreetly or implied rather than being highly graphic like most horror movies, and aside from that, the R rating is for numerous swear words in the first half-hour, after which the language cleans up considerably. There is also a brief moment of implied male masturbation in which the male is clothed. But for most adults, particularly those college-aged through there 30s who are more prone to scary movies, this should be an emotional thrill ride that should leave any fan of action, horror or suspense films delighted.
Meanwhile, “The Light Between Oceans” is based on a bestselling historical novel between M.L. Stedman, and also centers on a couple of characters navigating life in an unusual home. Tom (Michael Fassbender) is a returning World War I veteran who simply wants to find solitude as he comes to terms with his PTSD, and thus takes a job manning a lighthouse.
He meets a beautiful young woman named Isabel (Alicia Vikander) in the town that’s hiring him to light their shores, and she quickly gets forward with him in her desperation to spread her wings beyond the town. She asks him to have a picnic with her and before it’s over, she’s asked him to marry her.
He says no because of the absurd quickness of her request, but they embark on a torrid letter-writing romance, and on his next trip ashore, they become husband and wife. Their idyllic life is tested when she has two miscarriages, however, and she falls into deep depression.
But then one day a small boat washes ashore, carrying an incredible ethical dilemma: a dead man is inside, along with his baby daughter, who’s still alive. With no way to identify the father, Isabel quickly begs Tom to let them keep the baby and raise it as their own, believing that no one will ever figure out what they’ve done. But when Tom stumbles across a widow (Rachel Weisz) at the baby’s christening and later learns that she is the wife and mother of the two in the boat, his enormous guilt sets off a string of epic decisions with major consequences.
“Light” presents viewers with a gut-wrenching moral dilemma and impressively doesn’t find easy answers. The two stars are Oscar-caliber actors who bring dramatic weight to every role they perform, and writer-director Derek Cianfrance (“Blue Valentine,” ‘The Place Beyond The Pines”) builds on his fascination with troubled relationships.
The movie has no foul language or violence, and features two tastefully shot sex scenes, one in which nothing is shown as the husband and wife are under the covers and only their heads are seen, and the other showing the husband briefly kissing his wife’s belly. The PG-13 rating is more for the emotional intensity and moral/ethical themes of the movie.
Therefore, there are a lot of strong elements to “Light,” but it’s so overly serious, pushing one powerful moment after another at viewers, that it seems like it’s designed to beg for an Oscar. If historical dramas and period romances are your cup of tea, it could be a nice alternative to summer’s silliness, but for most, “Light” is likely to prove too emotionally dark to be entertaining.