Don’t Breathe

Don’t Breathe
Director: Fede Alvarez
Screenplay: Fede Alvarez & Rodo Sayagues
Stars: Stephen Lang (The Blind Man), Jane Levy (Rocky), Dylan Minnette (Alex), Daniel Zovatto (Money), Emma Bercovici (Diddy), Franciska Töröcsik (Cindy), Christian Zagia (Raul), Katia Bokor (Ginger), Sergej Onopko (Trevor)
MPAA Rating: R
Year of Release: 2016
Country: U.S.
Don’t Breathe
Don’t BreatheLike David Cameron Mitchell’s It Follows (2014), Fede Alvarez’s Don’t Breathe is set amongst the decaying emptiness of a largely deserted suburban Detroit neighborhood, which gives the horror thriller an atmospheric sense of loss, abandonment, and desperation that greatly enhances its relatively rote trapped-in-a-house narrative. The majority of the story takes place within and just outside a large, three-story brownstone in a neighborhood that is otherwise devoid of human life; it is literally the only house on the street in which someone lives, and all the other houses stand in mute witness to the horrors that take place, with no one to notice anything, much less call the cops. It’s a smart narrative device that works thematically, as well, as the best horror films—from James Whale’s Frankenstein (1931), to Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining (1980)—make the most of their unique locations to generate tension and unease. Given that the motivating force behind the protagonists’ action is economic necessity, it is all the more unsettling that the story unfolds against a background of economic collapse, with the empty, windowless houses and their overgrown yards standing as testament to the fact that dreams don’t always come true.

At the beginning of the film we are introduced to three teenagers—Rocky (Jane Levy), her boyfriend Money (Daniel Zovatto), and Alex (Dylan Minnette), who would like to be her boyfriend. They work as a team to rob houses by taking advantage of the fact that Alex’s father works for a security company, so he has access to skeleton keys and alarm codes. As his name suggests, Money is just in it for the money, while Alex plays along mainly to support Rocky, who wants to steal enough for her and her younger sister to escape their abusive, alcoholic mother and her boyfriend and move to California. Thus, Rocky has a noble purpose for her crimes, while Money is a standard-issue punk with a large chip on his shoulder and Alex is the relatively timid, morally conflicted would-be suitor who is more attuned than either of them to the dangers of any given situation. This is particularly true when Money gets a tip about a shut-in Gulf War veteran (Stephen Lang) who may be sitting on a small fortune (something in excess of $300,000) from a settlement after his daughter was killed by a reckless driver. It’s the fabled “final score” that will get Rocky the money she needs for her escape, but Alex is immediately wary, especially when they learn that the veteran is a blind. “Isn’t it wrong to rob a blind man?” he asks, to which Money replies, “Just because he’s blind don’t make him a saint.”

That turns out to be more true than they ever could have imagined, as once the three teens manage to break into the house, they find themselves trapped inside (virtually all of the windows have burglar bars and the doors have multiple locks) and at the mercy of someone who, at first blush, seems like a harmless old eccentric, but turns out to be a very dangerous predator with his own dark secrets to hide. As soon as they see the fortified locks on the basement door, they assume that’s where the money must be hidden, but we know there is something far worse down there, and some of the film’s best and most unsettling scenes take place in its depths, particularly when the man shuts off the electricity and evens the playing field by trapping them in complete darkness. The man’s blindness puts him at an obvious disadvantage, but he has numerous compensatory abilities, including heightened hearing (hence the title, Don’t Breathe). He is also incredibly strong, quite proficient with a gun (both his own and the one he gets from Money), and has a snarling, foaming-at-the-mouth Rottweiler trained to kill. The result is a unique, often terrifying game of cat and mouse in which Rocky, Money, and Alex must keep themselves alive while trying to escape the increasingly claustrophobic, yet strangely endless confines of the man’s dimly lit house. After a while, it seems like the world outside doesn’t exist anymore, and every room, air duct, and crawl space signals the promise of escape squashed by the terror of entrapment.

Written by director Fede Alvarez and Rodo Sayagues, who previously collaborated on Alvarez’s directorial debut, the ultra-gory 2013 remake of The Evil Dead (which also starred Levy), Don’t Breathe works in clockwork fashion, winding tighter and tighter as it goes along. There are some genuine surprises awaiting, as well as a number of false endings, false deaths, and sleight-of-hand misdirections. Alvarez and Sayagues make the strange decision to open the film with a shot of the blind man dragging Rocky’s unconscious body down the street in the morning light; it a bravura shot in its own right, starting from an extreme distance up in the air before slowing moving in to a close-up of the action, but it has the effect of (1) telling us up front the Rocky will survive at least that long and (2) undercutting the possibility of what appears to be her escape later in the film. Outside of that and a few moments in the end when the blind man becomes like the Terminator in his ability to withstand physical punishment, the film rarely missteps, but rather builds steadily on its suffocating premise. And, while Alvarez poured on the gore in Evil Dead, to the point that I actively questioned how far one would have to go to get an NC-17 rating for violence, Don’t Breathe is notable for how restrained it is when it comes to bloodshed. Don’t get me wrong—there is plenty of violence, but Alvarez always keeps it just off-screen or minimized in a way that makes you think you saw more than you did. The result is a film that feel incredibly violent without becoming a geek show, which suggests that Alvarez is a filmmaker of more cunning and versatility than his grisly feature debut promised.

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Overall Rating: (3)

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