Cast: Jane Levy, Dylan Minnette, Daniel Zovatto, Stephen Lang
Director: Fede Alvarez
Running time: 1 hour 27 minutes
by Jericho Cerrona
Of all the relatable paranoia conjured in the realm of horror thrillers, being stalked by an old blind war veteran certainly isn’t a universal fear. More understandable, perhaps, is the idea of leaving one’s impoverished surroundings in lieu of starting a new life; something the three central characters, Rocky (Jane Levy), Alex (Dylan Minnette), and Money (Daniel Zovatto), are planning to do during the opening moments of Don’t Breathe, the latest genre picture given a coat of elegant artistry by writer-director Fede Alvarez, who also made the 2013’s Evil Dead reboot. Because the characters live in the crumbling dystopia of Detroit, Alvarez and co-screenwriter Rodo Sayagues can get away with establishing a setting devoid of civilization, save for one blind combat veteran (Stephen Lang) living inside a shit-hole house who may be holding onto wads of cash. Save for a few clunky attempts at humanizing Rocky (her white trash mother and boyfriend berating her while watching crappy daytime TV is rather cartoonish) and planting the seeds for her eventual escape to California with young daughter in tow, Don’t Breathe is quite effective at giving us just enough information to buy into the premise and nothing more. What follows is a nifty twist on the standard home invasion thriller given the cat-and-mouse treatment by utilizing silence as often as jump scares, which Alvarez stages with technical inventiveness.
Like a lot of modest horror-thrillers, Don’t Breathe ultimately stretches out it’s economical concept to the breaking point, attempting to add various contrivances to keep the burglars trapped inside one location. During the film’s tense first half, Alvarez tightens the screws by keeping both the robbers as well as the audience in the dark as to what exactly is going on with Lang’s stealth-like home defender. Through clever tracking shots (evoking similar camera moves found in David Fincher’s Panic Room), we get a visual tour of the house, moving in on particular rooms and objects that will come into play later. This inversion of the standard home invasion premise--of realizing that the homeowner is the lethal one and rooting for the criminals to prevail--is interesting, but the film also seems to be commenting tangentially on the socio-economic conditions of its millieu. The fact that there are no neighbors around to hear the deafening gunshots and tortured screams means that Don’t Breathe can get away with almost anything without ever invoking the Good Samaritan response. That it simply uses its setting to get around such issues feels both smart and also a bit of a cheat, drawing similar comparisons to last year’s retro indie horror film It Follows.
Rather than embracing full-on pastiche like that movie, however, Alvarez uses horror tropes to build suspense out of a fairly silly concept. Watching a blind man creep around, sporadically shoot his gun, and beat the living shit out of a bunch of youngsters is laughable on the face of things, but the filmmaking bravado mostly covers over the inherent ridiculousness of the premise. On the acting front, Levy emerges as the prototypical “final girl”, rising to the challenges of a botched home invasion by effectively bulging her eyes and trying not to scream. Minnette gives off an everyman Logan Lerman type quality as the guy harboring a crush on the girl he can’t have, and Zovatto (also from It Follows and sporting Jared Leto-esque cornrows in yet another nod to Panic Room) is suitably annoying as the wannabe white gangster with a short fuse. Meanwhile, Lang is physically imposing enough to be convincing as the psycho geezer, but when the film stops to finally give him spoken dialogue late in the proceedings, his vocal inflections are so goofy as to dispel any kind of legitimate danger.
Unfortunately, Don’t Breathe can’t quite live up to it’s nail-biting first half, devolving into near camp as the true colors of Lang’s menacing old coot comes into full view. Of course, this essentially being a genre B-movie, the lack of moral shading and outright silliness is to be expected somewhat, but it’s still disappointing that Alvarez allows his movie to become just another dumb shocker with better camerawork rather than probing into the psychosis of his characters. Had the film fully committed to the genre in a way that, say, Jeremy Sauliner’s Green Room did; (a superior picture with similar elements that’s uncompromising in its depiction of violence), Don’t Breathe may have transcended its limitations. Sometimes, simply suggesting a morally grey character with a case of PTSD and cat-like reflexes is enough; we don’t really need basement torture chambers and a turkey baster to convince us of the banality of evil.