Trigger warnings: Violence, Ableism, Suicide
The subject of disability representation on the silver screen is a conversation that’s been brewing for decades, bubbling in response to contentious releases such as Rain Man, My Left Foot, and Me Before You. Films like Come As You Are and Sia’s Music have brought this conversation to a boiling point, with the disability community demanding “nothing about us without us” in the face of systematic ableism within the wider film industry.
For decades, disability has been depicted without the inclusion of disabled people in front of or behind the camera, often leading to inauthentic and one-dimensional storytelling. The past decade has seen substantial progress for disability representation, but time and time again, disabled stories are told without disabled people at the forefront.
Directed by Cooper Karl, Sightless (2020) is an American psychological thriller starring Riverdale’s Madelaine Petsch as a young woman who loses her sight after a vicious attack by an unknown perpetrator. Widely released by Netflix, the film follows Ellen (Petsch) as she adjusts to life as a blind woman in an assisted living apartment, with the help of Clayton (Alexander Koch), her carer. Ellen soon grows suspicious of her surroundings, and the people around her.
As the story unfolds, Ellen fights to free herself from this reality in which people aren’t who they first appear to be. Ellen is forced to rely on her instincts and remaining senses to navigate through this enclosed nightmare. Sightless is a film with a curious premise and a unique visual interpretation of perception that holds your attention as you start to doubt yourself and Ellen’s reliability as a first-person perspective.
This unusual but striking visual portrayal of sensory perception was pivotal for the film’s exploration of ‘perception vs. reality’, and an ingenious means of immersing the audience. Along the way, Sightless loses its grip, with an inconsistent plot development that’s hastily stitched together, exposing the gaping (plot)holes between the fabrics of this flawed storyline.
It has to be questioned whether Karl ever considered a blind lead, or if blind actors were even asked to audition? Petsch’s dedication to her role should be praised, but not without acknowledging the film industry’s historical and current ableism towards disabled actors; an industry that often shuts the door to disabled actors but insists on telling disabled stories.
The film’s glaring omission of audio description, authentic representation, and accessible marketing speaks volumes. Disability and blindness are used as a focal point, but the very same people experiencing disability and blindness are left behind and excluded.
Sightless does manage to clumsily break a hole through the wall, manifesting a small window for audiences to peer through into the everyday lives of blind people, including the adaptations used to navigate from A to B. There are minimal scenes of Ellen using her cane and assistive technology, and while they are scarce, they do hint at a shift in modern depictions of blindness.
The film’s dialogue wavers in substance, but a profound sentence can be heard from Clayton, when he tells Ellen that “losing your sight doesn’t mean you have to lose yourself.” Sightless alternates from slivers of progressive dialogue to tired and unimaginative tropes, including but not limited to the ‘light at the end of the tunnel’ cliché.
Sightless is a film that depends on the audience’s perception, building tension to construct an immersive reality. There are nuances of blindness that Petsch’s performance doesn’t quite grasp; a flaw that seeps throughout, and perhaps only noticeable to those in the know. Ellen’s vulnerability as a newly blind woman lays down the framework for the film’s development and atmosphere, serving as a cruel reminder that blind people can easily be taken advantage of by sighted people.
Still, Ellen’s resourcefulness and resilience are traits that paint Ellen as a strong character, not in spite of her disability, but perhaps because of her disability. Many of the film’s questionable elements and characterisation (such as Clayton’s manipulation, the lack of emotional support, and an attempted suicide scene) are all answered by the film’s plot twist, which provides both a sigh of relief and an unnerving realisation that blindness in film is always ultimately equated with helplessness.
The thriller and horror genres’ depiction of disability has evolved in recent years, with films such as A Quiet Place, Dawn of the Deaf, and Bird Box challenging misconceptions as to the capability of disabled and d/Deaf people, framing disability as an evolutionary advantage rather than a societal burden.
Sightless is a frustrating film, and one that harbours wasted potential. With a few tweaks and patching of plot holes alongside an authentic performance, Sightless would have stood out as a pivotal moment for blind representation, whilst creating an immersive and unique experience for audiences. Sightless is just another forgettable moment, and another reminder that blind audiences are an afterthought, written out of their own stories.
Image via IMDB – Sightless
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