What we can learn from Don’t Breathe’s plot twist

Warning: contains spoilers for Fight Club (1999) and The Sixth Sense (1999).

I recently rewatched home-invasion thriller Don’t Breathe – imagine Wait Until Dark (1967) turned on its head – from Fede Álvarez, the man behind the 2013 Evil Dead reboot. It’s always been one of my favourites, receiving acclaim upon release for its nail-biting tension and deceptively modest premise: three burglars (Jane Levy, Dylan Minnette – shoutout to my man Clay – and Daniel Zovatto) break into the decaying dwelling of a nameless blind war veteran (Stephen Lang), searching for the six-figure settlement he received as compensation for his daughter’s death, hidden somewhere in his house. The catch? It turns out that their intended mark is much fiercer than anticipated. He attacks and quickly dispatches one-third of the trio before subjecting the remaining two to a deadly game of cat and mouse as they try to escape his home.

Despite its wickedly simple premise, the film introduces a major twist around halfway through its 80-minute runtime. The young woman who killed the man’s daughter – in a car accident – is found by the pair of burglars in the dimly lit basement, tied up and impregnated by the man, in order to bear for him another child. During a failed escape attempt, however, she is mistakenly shot and killed, so the man decides that Rocky (Levy) should take her place. Harnessed, unable to move, and doing all she can to escape, Rocky is forced to watch the man advance toward her, turkey baster – filled with his semen – in hand.

It makes for truly disturbing viewing, and despite another final twist at the end – after being left for dead, it turns out the man is stiiiill aliiiive – understandably it is the aptly-named “Turkey Baster Scene” that drew the most attention upon the film’s release. It still drives the bulk of discussion surrounding the film today and remains as divisive as it was three years ago; some lauding it for originality and a spin on a classic horror element – the rape scene – and others labelling it a cheap and random plot beat. For me, it wasn’t until this most recent viewing that the scene stuck out like such a sore thumb, and it got me thinking what takeaways it offers up for twists in general.

Twists are common tropes in cinema at this point, you know that. The Sixth Sense and Fight Club contain perhaps the most famous, and well-received, movie twists in modern cinema. Horror movies in particular have classically used the twist as an audience-shocking device, and the combination of the sexual and grotesque in this manner is what makes them so especially unsettling. Sleepaway Camp‘s ending (warning: not for the faint of heart) is another great example. This is almost definitely what Álvarez was aiming for here. Unfortunately it didn’t land that way with most audiences. The way I see it, the difference between Don’t Breathe‘s twist and the other examples mentioned above, comes down to two things: context and clues. The context (the most important of the two) of a twist helps to underscore the film’s themes and makes the twist feel more like it is advancing the plot or making a statement, rather than just being in there for shock value. Clues conversely are what make the twist feel tonally relevant, so that it doesn’t appear to come out of nowhere.

The Sixth Sense definitely executed these the best. Both twists exist so that the two main characters can find some sort of catharsis to the problems in their relationships with their loved ones. Cole uses his ability to communicate with the dead in order to connect with his mother, while Malcolm comes to accept his fate in order to pass on and come to terms with his relationship with Anna. The film also leaves hints as to Malcolm’s fate throughout, such as him never directly communicating with anyone other than Cole, despite the opposite being suggested, but never confirmed. The twist feels earned, and it doesn’t come off as a cheap, last-minute addition to the plot (see: the Toomes reveal in Spiderman: Homecoming).
Fight Club‘s twist helps to emphasise the film’s other themes, of identity, self-destruction and mental health, particularly schizophrenia. It’s clues, however are slightly more subliminal, with frames of Tyler intercut throughout the film, and throwaway lines of dialogue foreshadowing the twist. If they wanted to, viewers could definitely work this out before the film’s final act, rewarding attentive viewing.

You can see that, when compared to the other examples offered, Don’t Breathe‘s twist doesn’t hold up as well. Firstly, there are no clues to the fate of the man’s daughter or her killer throughout, making the scene feel extra-jarring on top of the obvious. But most importantly, it has no context in, or relevance to, the overall story; the film has no themes of rape, consent, etc. therefore it doesn’t strengthen any overarching narrative, it’s simply there to freak the audience out. And while this of course works, it could do so much more in an otherwise very well-crafted movie.