Perhaps expecting more from the quietly-released Blindsided (aka Penthouse North) was a bad idea, but it's hard not to get caught up in some of the potential with the talent involved. Michael Keaton playing a cunning gangster who's attempting to persuade a recently blinded war photojournalist, played by the delightful Michelle Monaghan, to fork over something secret and valuable? Sounds promising, if familiar, especially considering the buzz that Keaton recently earned for the addled lunacy of his performance in Birdman. Little more than a boilerplate one-location thriller emerges from Sleeping With the Enemy and The Forgotten director Joseph Ruben, though, whose idea of novelty comes in how far the film can push the audience's buttons while confronting a sightless, shell-shocked woman. An unpleasant and dopey piece of exploitation comes into view that overlooks the nuance of these characters in pursuit of shallow manipulation, mustering only trivial interest due to the dedicated performances of the central leads.
Blindsided begins by following a squad of soldiers through Afghanistan, where embedded photojournalist Sara Frost (Monaghan) captures the rigors of combat. An unfortunate situation and judgment call leads her towards a suicide bomber in an abandoned building, the explosion which leaves her permanently blinded. Cut to several years later, where Sara continues to acclimate to her new life without sight, aided by her relationship with handsome dude Ryan and a sparse, beautiful apartment high up in a New York building. On one of her rare walks out into the city, a vandal (Barry Sloane) uses her absence to plunder the home -- and assault her boyfriend -- in search of something valuable, and his failure to locate it puts Sara's life in danger by both he and his "boss", Hollander (Keaton). With Ryan's body incapacitated and bloody on the kitchen floor, Sara's left to her own devices and knowledge to get through the ordeal.
The circumstances of Sara's blindness can be frustrating due to the naivete and questionable awareness built around her combat situation, but they'd be passable for the sake of sympathizing with her had Blindsided followed through on that dramatic foundation and deepened the character. Unfortunately, the script from Obsessed and Nurse 3D writer David Loughery limits her prior history to little more than plot devices, topping off her lack of sight with post-traumatic stress not as a means of depicting her steadfastness against adversity, but as a way of merely hiding details around her and shaking Sara up where needed. Since these are the only elements that really separate Blindsided from its obvious but unmentioned inspiration, the pseudo-Hitchcockian Audrey Hepburn vehicle Wait Until Dark, it's disappointing to see something as profound as Sara's harrowing, worldly experience get wasted on superficial machinations. Come to think of it, aside from the ending, even her blindness doesn't really factor into the story's progression all that much, merely forcing her into the limitations of a powerless victim who may or may not know where something's located in the apartment.
Instead, Blindsided merely uses Sara's condition for an added layer of pity atop what's unleashed on her by two physically capable, dangerous men driven by greed and malice, and that's about it. A contemptible tone fills the classy metropolitan apartment as a result, punctuated by their torment towards the woman whom they're fully aware is blind and battle-scarred: hurling heavy objects at her feet for a loud bang, tossing her body around like a rag doll, even waterboarding her later on. Her assailants are straight-up volatile bad guys who take pleasure in both the physical and verbal attacks, producing a rather spiteful cinematic endurance run once the threats lead to more unsavory abuse and animal cruelty. Keaton turns in a menacing, loathsome performance as Hollander and Michelle Monaghan filters her innately sympathetic -- yet subtly devious -- attitude through on-the-nose blind mannerisms as Sara, yet they're both wasted on simplistic renditions of a twisted criminal and their prey respectively. Barry Sloane's brutish enforcer, whose empathy and survival instincts are manipulated by both Hollander and Sara, possibly shows more complexity than either of them.
A few mysteries remain hidden under the floorboards of Blindsided leading up to the end, about the identity of Sara's wealthy boyfriend and about the stash of riches in their apartment, but they're about as insignificant as the rest of the film's pursuits. Happenstance and contrivance make the suspense ring false as Hollander forces his way closer to revelations, putting Sara -- and the audience -- through the ringer with manipulative tactics, further pursuing that objectionable mood. Thing is, this doesn't shape into the tale of Sara's perseverance and resourcefulness that it seems to think it's becoming, or would like to become, where scenes of physical and psychological torture come across as ruthless for no other reason than shock value. Whatever significance or enjoyment there might be in rooting for Sara to gain the upper hand gets lost in a haze of fireworks, broken pots, and a woman going into labor, never managing to blindside those watching with any worthwhile surprises.
Video and Audio:
Excluding some weird haziness that crops up during green-screen horizon shots, Blindsided looks rather strong in this 1.78:1-framed, 16x9-enhanced transfer. Skilled cinematographer Chris Seager, whose work spans from episodes of Game of Thrones to the stunning film-theater hybrid recording of Hamlet, allows his experience to effortlessly capture Joseph Ruben's intentions between the big characters and across the "stage" of the apartment. The transfer emphasizes the paleness of Monaghan's skin in comparison to Keaton's warmth without a hitch, while the camerawork travels over the angular tiles, woodgrains, and other contemporary decor elements of the apartment with clean lines and a natural eye for metallic, fabric, and wood textures. Vivid colors pop out where they can, from the deep red of blood to the greens and yellows of fruit, which stay appropriate with the color palette. Darker sequences reveal wishy-washy contrast and the digital effects pull some bloom and blurriness into the equation, but this standard-def Blindsided triumphs in spite of those things.
Don't let expectations about the straightforward setting fool you, though: the Dolby Digital 5.1 track actually utilizes a surprisingly amount of activity across the channels, whether that's to the benefit or detriment of the premise. It starts out assertive during the wartime sequences, emphasizing the punch of explosions and gunfire alongside the subtlety of camera shuttering and footsteps on gravel, but the insistence of the track -- notably the musical score -- carries over that sonic energy to the metropolitan, three-years-later setting. Shattered glass, flung bodies, and a few well-placed punches telegraph more assertive effects with moderate room-filling vigor, while subtle elements like shower water, a cat's meow, and the plop of bare feet in a pool of blood generate some satisfying atmosphere. Clarity tends to be somewhat strained in the center channel at times, making mid-range sound elements seem muffled and digital, but the track typically rebounds with moments of strength to make up for them. English SDH and Spanish subtitles are available.
Nothing to see here.
Imagine the novelty of how blindness impacts the suspense in Wait Until Dark and replace it with amplified cruelty towards the victim and underdeveloped war-photographer characterization, and you've essentially got the underwhelming Blindsided. Its lack of uniqueness is only overshadowed by its infuriating efforts to goad the audience with edgy assaults on the blind woman, while a lack of interesting follow-through on its meager mysteries makes for a pretty futile slate of ineffective thrills. What's frustrating about all this is the talent involved, with Michael Keaton filling the role of a vile villain and Michelle Monaghan playing a blind victim with a little rage up her sleeves, where the performance potential deserves better than the material they're working with here. Skip It.