A response to austerity, poverty and class, Don’t Breathe bludgeons the senses with a taut, brooding eighty five minutes of home invasion horror.
Not horror in the traditional sense of schlock and gore. Fede Alvarez, hot off the commercially successful Evil Dead remake, wanted to very specifically avoid blood, guts and copious claret spilling with Don’t Breathe and deal in suspense. The horror of suspense is a very different animal than the kind of horror Sam Raimi popularised in his original Evil Dead (taking nothing away from that seminal franchise). Indeed the biggest compliment you can give Don’t Breathe is that were Alfred Hitchcock alive today, he may at least have approved of Alvarez’s picture, even if it’s a cliched stretch to suggest he would have directed something similar himself.
Home invasion horror has become a sub-genre all of its own in recent years, much like found footage or ‘torture porn’ (is that still a thing?). As an entity its been around for decades, from George Romero’s legendary Night of the Living Dead (1968), or Straw Dogs (1971) which has resonated through cinema even to the point it dug its roots, remarkably, into the James Bond franchise.
The sub-genre has enjoyed a real renaissance in recent years, with films such as Michael Haneke’s profoundly disturbing Funny Games (1997) or his American remake ten years later, The Strangers (2008), The Purge (2013) which may have blossomed into a franchise all of its own but very much started as a claustrophobic home invasion thriller, or Knock Knock (2015), Eli Roth’s absurdist cautionary tale with a Shatner-esque hammy turn from Keanu Reeves. Lately, home invasion is everywhere.
The Childhood of a Leader is a fascinating piece of cinema, especially given it’s not only a debut piece of work, but the debut piece of work from an actor best known for playing Alan Tracy in the execrable Jonathan Frakes’ Thunderbirds movie.
Brady Corbet’s film is about the birth of fascism. Not in a political sense of being a historical depiction of the rise of Adolf Hitler, but rather the human genesis of a fascist mind. It plays out in the form of a strange psychodrama, one with almost verite touches in its final moments, strange not just thanks to it’s unusual post-World War One setting but in how it pivots around the key developmental moments of a young boy.
Trying to describe the very premise of The Childhood of a Leader would be extraordinarily difficult, something Corbet was acutely aware of when he started writing the script; he at first pulled back on it, convinced thematically it was “too big” for a debut feature, but his wife Mona Fastvold encouraged him to continue and together they developed the screenplay.
The central boy in question, Prescott (Tom Sweet), is the son of an American diplomat at the very end of the Great War (unnamed but played by Liam Cunningham) and his French wife (Berenice Bejo). In the midst of negotiations taking place that would form the Treaty of Versailles, Corbet’s picture captures the stark, erratic and unusual child development of a boy we know has an important future. The very word ‘leader’ implies much from the title; this isn’t the childhood of a President or a Prime Minister, this is the childhood of a leader. Even not knowing Corbet’s subtextual aspirations going in, ‘leader’ suggests strength, suggests dominance, suggests manifest destiny.