REVIEW: Blindness [2008]

“Like someone turned on all the lights”

I truthfully don’t know what to think about Fernando Meirelles’ new film Blindness. Based on a novel and adapted by Don McKellar, (the thief in the film if you’re interested, and also Brad in the fantastic Waydowntown), the story actually left me a little cold. This thing is tense, don’t get me wrong, and edge of your seat in multiple moments, but by the end I was a tad surprised at how innocuous it all was. Maybe I am demeaning the story too much, because I did really enjoy this film and the deconstruction of humanity, showing how cruel and vicious we all are underneath the surface, is quite a humbling experience. It actually could be a credit to the directing that I am so confused at the success of the plot because if you want visually stunning, in a gorgeous minimalist way, you won’t see much better. The extreme close-ups, the screen shrouded in a mass of milky white with only faded contours seen, the artistic blurring, and of course the point-of-view shots, even from the floor behind a cane as it clicks back and forth, made my eyes very happy. Perhaps I was so interested in what I saw that I didn’t quite open myself up enough to the actual story propelling the pictures.

It is a very intriguing premise—an epidemic of instant blindness in people with perfect, healthy eyes. Rather than a void of light, seeing pitch black, the disease creates a field of white, as though light is actually what’s causing the blindness. The way it goes through the population is also fascinating, as it appears to be a contagion, traveling to people in contact with the first man afflicted and so on. Like most outbreaks of this kind, the government panics and creates a quarantine center for those effected with the first doctor on the in case in charge, because he has also fallen ill. The x-factor, though, is the doctor’s wife, a woman who appears to not unchanged, immune to the problem yet forced to pretend so as not to become the eyes of the group, doing everyone’s bidding. The dynamic is successful at first, the initial wave of patients are afraid and looking for answers, they create a community of helping and understanding while a cure is hopefully being discovered in the outside world. Only when more and more people come in, people who have lived amongst the afflicted and have become one, people bitter and ready to exploit the weak for their own means, does the chaos truly begin.

What transpires as a result of the “King of Ward Three” and his penchant for power makes me rethink what the worst possible thing that could happen to a person is. To be the only one with sight in a world gone blind might be the scariest responsibility ever. The doctor’s wife is in the front row of the power struggle and is helpless to do anything about it. Those like her—those with a set of moral standards and at least a shred of humanity left—can do nothing to help protect them. The “King” has the only weapon, a handgun, and the smartest man of the community as his right hand—a real life blind man accountant, one who knows how to live without sight because he’s done it since birth. A monarchy of abuse begins amidst the already horrid conditions. Not only does the outside world supply little food, not only are they too afraid to help at risk of infection that the blind are now living in a cesspool of filth, but the effected must contend with a man who has taken control of the group’s life blood. Food and water is now in his control to pass out as he likes, whether in exchange for valuables or women, his iron fist instills fear in the community, but also confidence and courage in the one woman who could do anything to stop him. The “King” may never forget her voice, but she will never forget his face—one of the best moments of the film.

The acting is very good despite the laughter of the audience I was a member of. To fake blindness with your eyes open is a tough thing and the instances of stumbling and fighting can come off as laughable, but it really is not. Everyone did a very nice job of keeping a distant look and dejected demeanor at the situation. When a character initially lost sight is where some nice things happen as just seeing how they each take it and what they do creates intrigue. McKellar keeps it interesting by writing most of them into the tale while they have sight to help show their mental make-up and attitude change when they lose it. To see which become violent and vindictive compared to those who apply themselves for good is a definite plus. Alice Braga and Mark Ruffalo (who plays the doctor) are two successful cases of trying to persevere, while performances by Gael García Bernal (“The King”) and Maury Chaykin (the Accountant) show how evil at man’s core can be called upon to bring darkness to the light. These people are shrouded in white light, yet their actions turn it black as they create a vacuum devoid of love and compassion. Some instances are hard to watch, there is no question, but the commentary on society is one to experience with eyes open, seeing the atrocities seemingly good people will commit under certain circumstances.

Julianne Moore is the center of it all as the doctor’s wife who can see, (I absolutely love the fact that no one has a name in this film, they are pronouns and occupations. They know each others’ core being, the person that lives inside them, whatever is on the surface does not matter in a world without vision). Moore must show a range of emotion while those around her are oblivious to it all. Only see can see what goes on while the rest hear the gunshots and screams and can only begin to imagine what caused them. She is fearless in the role, becoming one of the blind, being oppressed and abused like them, until she can take it no longer.

And here is where it all could have fallen apart if it didn’t anyway. About halfway through I couldn’t help but start thinking how they could end it all. There were two options, either keeping it bleak and hopeless to stay in tone with the rest or to wrap it up with a bow and infuse a little happiness and hope for the future. Both ways didn’t quite seem to work for me and I won’t tell you which they chose, but it was disappointing to me and too easily done without sufficient buildup. However, I don’t really mind too much because the middle of the film is riveting stuff, watching the downfall of humanity, the devolution to an animal instinct once civility seems to no longer be a viable option. The use of light and close-up framing is in your face and very powerful, leaving an indelible mark on your imagination visually to complement the tough subject matter psychologically. Blindness makes you think about yourself and how you may handle a similar situation, whether you will bend or break. It’s a very fine line and one that may be too scary to truly dig into because what you find might not bring a smile to your face.

Blindness 8/10 | ★ ★ ★

photography:
courtesy of the Toronto International Film Festival

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