Relentless Horror

'Blindness' is bleak, realistic, well-done and very, very depressing

It's been said that Blindness succeeds at being thought-provoking, but fails as a thriller. But that's like saying that Citizen Kane succeeds as a movie, but fails as a doughnut recipe.

Blindness simply isn't a thriller. Rather, it's a gloomy parable about how close we stand to chaos, and as such, it offers little in the way of cheap thrills or immediate rewards.

It's a pretty well-crafted film about a depressing subject, with no effort to sugar-coat it or make it mass-marketable. Other than some extremely misguided narration by an extremely miscast Danny Glover, it's a surprisingly intelligent effort for a film that cost $25 million and features some bankable stars.

Julianne Moore leads as The Doctor's Wife (she remains otherwise unnamed). One day, her husband (Mark Ruffalo) treats a man who has experienced sudden-onset blindness. The next day, the doctor himself is blind, as are dozens of people across the film's unnamed city. Moore feigns blindness so she can go with her husband to a quarantine facility. Soon, it fills with other victims of the plague, who are kept inside by armed guards and left to fend for themselves.

Inside the facility, hygiene degrades rapidly; order vanishes, and a group of thugs takes over, first demanding money, and then sex, in order to receive food. This section of the film is deeply disturbing. Director Fernando Meirelles, who impressed everyone with City of Men, outdoes himself here. In Blindness--instead of the thrills, action and audience rewards of City of Men--Meirelles presents an unpleasant environment without any false note of redemption. Particularly difficult is a gang-rape/murder scene which is smartly devoid of titillation. It's just completely unpleasant.

In this, it contrasts with more recent dystopian films like Children of Men. That movie tried to paint a bleak future but then offered candy to the audience in the form of chase scenes, explosions and a credulity-stretching happy ending. That was probably a wise move; unless they're Swedish, people don't usually go to the movies to be depressed about the basic attributes of humanity.

Blindness also almost entirely avoids another pitfall of metaphoric films: the Explaining Things Narrator Guy. Almost. Most of the movie is devoid of anyone making grand pronouncements, but, for reasons that defy explanation, quintessential sap actor Danny Glover comes in and pours sugar on things a few times. His performance, which is stagey and pretentious in a Green Mile/Million Dollar Baby sort of way, stands out against the bleak naturalism of the other performers.

Moore is far more compelling. She starts the film with a ditzy happiness and then acquires an increasing, but believably won, hardness as the world falls apart. Ruffalo, who's almost never bad, is mostly supporting here, and he does that well, staying out of the limelight. But the finest acting in the film comes from the duo of Gael García Bernal and Maury Chaykin. Bernal plays a young man who declares himself King of Ward Three of the blindness-quarantine facility. With Chaykin as his right-hand man, they stage a coup and descend into Lord of Flies-style barbarism. After demanding all of the material goods in the facility, they indulge themselves in sick power fantasies. Enacting their schemes in hallways filled with litter and human waste, they form a sort of post-apocalyptic Martin and Lewis, with Bernal the lanky comedian and Chaykin the smooth straight man.

Though the performers (besides Glover) are great, most of the credit goes to Meirelles. He had the courage to shoot this film in a dirty style, with darkly lit scenes, frequent white-outs and a hazy sense of gloom that, if not fun to look at, at least properly mirrors the onscreen mood. He also was completely uncompromising on the film's attitude, which will probably work against the film's box-office take.

While the story is based on the novel by José Saramago, that novel, and this film, actually draw heavily from John Wyndham's Day of the Triffids, making this the second film of the year to do so. (The first was M. Night Shyamalan's underrated The Happening. ) Wyndham's book is also about an outbreak of blindness causing the most beastly, power-obsessed and shortsighted characteristics of mankind to rise to the surface.

Unlike Day of the Triffids, Blindness features no walking trees--just relentless, increasing horror. And not the fun kind of horror where a guy in a clown mask makes people dismember themselves. Instead, it's the bleak kind of horror that Ingmar Bergman specialized in, the kind that shows itself when ordinary people are given too much leeway and too few resources.

It's also a good reminder that the only thing separating us from the terrors of Darfur or the western Congo is a week's supply of food. But that's the kind of thing that's not so amusing to think about, and while Blindness is an excellent, and unusually undiluted, sugar-free film, it's probably not the most fun thing you can watch. Of course, we don't always go to the movies to have fun.

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