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Breathing Room: Question the Question

September 26, 2009

What would happen if you put 14 strangers in a room, equip each with deadly collars, warn them of the killer instincts of a select few, and then turn out the lights?   This scenario should sound familiar; it has been done better in movies like Cube, Fermat’s Room and Battle Royale.  However, co-directors John Suits and Gabriel Cowan’s first movie, Breathing Room, should be judged less on the originality of the premise and more on the skillful execution of the action.

Tonya awakens in the Breathing Room to learn that she is the 14th and final contestant in the game.  A slip of paper warns her that “player 5 does not tell the truth.”  What is she to think?  How can she know what is real?  She quickly discovers that Lee, contestant six, has assumed the leadership role and is working hard to keep everyone together.  But there are dissenters, those who cannot be trusted to follow the rules; those whose only concern is to remain hidden.  The host warns them all, “Rules are rules my children.  Choose your fate or have your fate chosen.”

The group dynamics are effectively presented during a skillfully crafted purging session.  Lee leads the group and as the camera circles the warehouse, we learn a little bit about each of them.  But we only learn what they tell us, and we don’t believe any of them.  This is where Breathing Room is most effective.  The hints left by the host, like the headlines we read online, infiltrate the rational and turn even the most trusting souls against one another.  It is a powerful subtext and one that is quite unexpected.

Each time the lights go out, the actors are afforded the opportunity to display their talents as they reveal the nature of their characters.  Illuminated by night vision goggles, each convey the terror, anger, fear, despair, strength, and power that the darkness elicits.  It is the unknown that is most terrifying; it is in the darkness that we disappear.  And each time the lights come up, there is one less contestant.

Dispatched in creatively artistic ways, the bodies begin to pile up.  As the numbers of remaining players dwindle, the inevitable questions arise.  Why is this happening?  What does it mean?  Why are we here?  There are moments of dialogue seemingly lifted straight out of Natali’s Cube; in a movie that already lacks originality, these moments seem even more forced and stolen.

But Breathing Room does have something to offer.  It is a suspenseful excursion into the minds of fourteen characters who, for the most part, act in ways that are realistic and human.  There is no real bad guy, and this lends credibility to the script.  Suits and Cowan’s get people, and they seem to genuinely like each of the characters in the room.  They use light and dark to their advantage, and although none of the kills are shown on screen, it seems bloodier than it really is.  Breathing Room is a successful introduction to two talented filmmakers.  Keep an eye out for John Suits and Gabriel Cowan.


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