The offensive power of 'Don't Breathe's' controversial turkey baster scene
WARNING: There are major Don't Breathe spoilers below.
Last week I wrote about Don't Breathe's instantly-notorious turkey baster scene, in which the psychotic "Blind Man" (Stephen Lang) ties Rocky (Jane Levy) up in a harness, cuts a hole in her pants and announces his intention to impregnate her with a turkey baster full of his semen. When I first watched the film-- which just topped the North American box office for the second week in a row -- the brutally-tense moment had me physically squirming in my seat, which is obviously the reaction Alvarez intended to provoke. As Rocky screams and struggles in horror, the Blind Man also, incredibly, announces: "I'm not a rapist." Which, of course, he is.
Since Don't Breathe's release, the baster scene has been widely lauded by critics as a daring bit of provocation by the film's director Fede Alvarez, and for better or worse it likely contributed to the film's unexpected success at the box office. Clearly, the fact that we're still talking about it at all is a testament to the scene's distressing power. But is the fact that it was included in the film in the first place a morally dubious decision on the part of Alvarez and his co-screenwriter Rodo Sayagues?
A lot of people out there are saying "yes," with many of them citing the scene's out-of-nowhere factor -- which of course contributes to its success as an instrument of shock -- as a large part of the problem.
"...it was obvious to me that the baster scene was included specifically to shock," wrote Wired's Brian Raftery. "It was a clear case of rape ex machina—a turn of events that had no build-up, and that frankly didn’t make a whole lot of sense. (I hate doing logic-forensics, especially in genre movies, but: How many victims did he intend to impregnate, anyway? And even with all his moolah, how did a blind loner manage to build a high-end insemination clinic in his basement?)"
And from Raftery's colleague Angela Watercutter: "While it wasn’t as bad as I thought it might be, it was still pretty awful. We’ve talked a bit around here about how lazy rape scenes are as plot devices and I think what Alvarez did here is guilty of playing into a lot of those tropes."
Meanwhile, over at Jezebel -- in a piece itself provocatively headlined "The Number 1 Movie in America Is Casually About Rape" -- Joanna Rothkopf similarly criticizes the scene, writing: "It’s at this point that the film leaps beyond the concrete plot of the first two acts and into the all-too-commonly-visited cinematic realm where rape is a device plucked from a catalogue of unpleasant things to up the stakes of a scene."
These responses paint the scene as lazy at best and misogynistic at worst, and those are valid critiques, particularly in light a film and TV culture that has historically used rape -- or at least the threat of rape -- as a device to shock and titillate an audience, often without any semblance of narrative logic or necessity (can you imagine the think pieces that would result from Re-Animator's infamous cunnilingus scene if the film were released today?).
Then again, it does have us talking, and Alvarez is (unfortunately) correct in noting that, while many will be turned off by the scene, arguably more will "fall deeply in love with the film right there." Or, as he put it to Slashfilm, “I think this movie should be provocative and should push boundaries. All of the classics have at least one scene, one moment, that was completely fucked up." In other words, he's just following in the footsteps of the provocateurs who made him want to make films in the first place.
I do disagree with at least one of the points made by the above-mentioned critics -- namely Raftery, who suggests that Alvarez and Sayagues are somehow using The Blind Man's "I'm not a rapist" line as some sort of a shield against the very critiques he, Watercutter, Rothkopf and others are leveling. "We realize this might scene might seem like it belongs in the Problem Attic(TM), but don’t worry!" he writes, paraphrasing their supposed intentions. "The bad guy says it’s not rape, so therefore, it’s not -- and now you, the audience member, don’t have to feel too grossed out about the cynical crassness of this last-minute twist!"
This feels a little unfair, particularly given that Raftery easily dismisses the idea that the "I'm not a rapist" line was an attempt to "showcase and condemn" the kind of hair-splitting logic employed by actual rapists ("I doubt that level of commentary was considered for even a second," he writes). In other words, he surmises, the filmmakers were cognizant enough of the scene's bound-to-be-controversial content to use the line as a way of exonerating themselves from charges of misogyny, but somehow not enough to use it ironically, as a means of condemning Lang's character. I think that's selling them short as people and as filmmakers, and for the record, I actually did interpret the line as an ironic commentary -- or at the very least, as an unsettlingly realistic look into the mind of a psychotic rapist.
So what of Rocky's cathartic moment of revenge, which sees her plunging the semen-filled cooking utensil down the throat of her attacker following a last-minute rescue? While it's a brilliant, table-turning climax to the horrifically-suspenseful buildup, Rothkopf -- who later admits she "mostly enjoyed" the film -- greets it cynically: "The move feels like it was intended by the filmmakers to be a moment of catharsis in which Rocky is allowed the ultimate revenge: she gets to be a man for one moment, and rapes the rapist with his own dick. What it must feel like to be the man!"
At the end of the day, the baster scene is a complex one that's open to multiple interpretations, many of them not so positive. But I would stop short of celebrating its so-called transgressiveness, as many critics have. The admittedly unique turkey baster element aside, using rape as a narrative device is pretty lazy and not worthy of that kind of praise. Still, it would be hard for anyone to completely dismiss Alvarez's filmmaking prowess based on a single wrongheaded decision. The man is clearly very, very good at what he does, and indeed, not even those critical of the film are immune to his "charms." As Watercutter notes, even the baster scene can serve a purpose.
"Maybe we’re playing to Alvarez’s 'provocative' hands here, but I do think [Don't] Breathe can start a conversation that I want to have with people—especially horror fans," she writes, continuing later, "The fact of the matter is, these things are out there, and ignoring them won’t help. We need to talk about these things—the plot won’t change if we don’t."