A strange mix of brilliance and annoyances, “Don’t Breathe” crafts an extremely tense scenario but somewhat fumbles its execution.
Writer/Director Fede Alvarez rocked horror fans and critics with his first feature film, 2013’s remake of Evil Dead. He took the beloved horror flick, ratcheted everything up to eleven, and somehow managed to craft something new that both paid homage to the original and was able to stand on its own. For his sophomore film, Alvarez stated he wanted to try something a bit different, less gory, as he had “already used enough blood to last a lifetime.” While there are a handful of truly disturbing scenes, “Don’t Breathe” is clearly much more of a thriller than a horror film.
The premise revolves around three hoodlums trying to make the most of their life in the ghetto known as Detroit. Money (Daniel Zovatto) and his girlfriend Rocky (Jane Levy) are hoping to build up enough cash and move to the California coast. They do this by robbing various homes with their friend Alex (Dylan Minnette) who has a not-so-secret crush on Rocky. Like many petty thieves, these three characters imagine themselves to be far more intelligent than they actually are. Their current plan for success is to only rob the homes under the protection of a security company run by Alex’s father. Ideally this allows them to get in and out of the more affluent houses without triggering any alarms. After being disappointed again at the street value of a Rolex, a tip leads them to the house of an Army vet (Stephen Lang) rumored to have a large cash settlement from the accidental death of his daughter. A quick stakeout reveals two surprising things. This old man has an incredible amount of deadbolts and padlocks, and he’s completely blind. Since he rarely leaves the house, the criminal trio decides to rob him while he sleeps.
One of the highlights to this film is Alvarez’s camera work. In the early moments of the burglary, the camera travels through (almost) the entire house, providing us with a mental map of all the relevant areas and teasing us with glimpses of possible danger. Early shots are wide, establishing the environment in our mind, but later scenes are incredibly claustrophobic as the blind man begins stalking his prey. Prey is the best word for the three ne’er-do-wells, as Lang portrays this old man as a dangerous, almost animal, predator. Without his vision, this former soldier utilizes all of his other senses in tracking down those who have ventured into his domain. A number of scenes conjure up images of the T-Rex in Jurassic park searching for people it knows are there, but just can’t see. Another brilliant sequence later in the film has a few of the characters navigating a cluttered area in complete darkness. After a few moments of black screen, the brightness is turned up just a little and in shades of grey we can see what they cannot. Pupils almost as large as their eyes, they frantically search for a way out, while also trying to avoid the blind man. We’ve seen nightvision type scenes done many times before, but never has one been as effective as this.
Unfortunately, for everything that it does right, there’s an equal amount of disappointing issues. Some are odd choices, like opening the film with a shot that literally shows you the ending. For a film that relies so much on tension, why remove two thirds of it in the first 90 seconds? The movie is also a victim of its own premise. There are only so many times a character can be almost caught, almost killed, or almost escape without it becoming repetitive and nonsensical. Clever uses of sound eventually fall into a predictive pattern of: Silence, loud noise, piano chord strike, ear-ringing, repeat. Finally, in an attempt to keep one-upping itself, the villain (i.e. the relatively worst character) abruptly jumps from plausible to cartoonish monster. It’s a scene that elicits that biggest response from the audience, but feels as if it’s from an entirely different film and does more to fracture the tension then add to it. Struggling to find enough ways to keep the characters in danger during it’s brisk 88 minute runtime, we’re subjected to a number of false endings not seen since “The Return of the King”
For everything it gets right, and Alvarez’s cinematic creativity, “Don’t Breathe” is worth seeing once. There are just too many storytelling decisions made that push it right back down into the overpopulated glut of jump-scare thrillers to make it very memorable.