Remember, kids, crime doesn’t pay. Jane Levy, Dylan Minnette and Stephen Lang star in Don’t Breathe.
Director – Fede Alvarez
Screenplay – Fede Alvarez & Rodo Sayagues
Producer – Sam Raimi, Robert Tapert & Fede Alvarez
Rated R for terror, violence, disturbing content, and language including sexual references
Tired of putting up with her neglectful parents, delinquent teen Rocky (Jane Levy) longs to move herself and her younger sister Diddy (Emma Bercovici) out of the Detroit slums and over to California. It doesn’t take a genius, however, to figure out that she needs money to do so, money she simply doesn’t have. Needing to score some cash quick, Rocky learns from her boyfriend Money (Daniel Zovatto) that a nearby blind Gulf War veteran (Stephen Lang) is sitting on $300,000 settlement he earned from a family tragedy.
So after some quick planning, Rocky, Money and their security tech geek friend Alex (Dylan Minnette) break into the blind man’s home, but these juvenile invaders learn very quickly that the man they’re robbing isn’t as helpless as they might’ve thought and soon find themselves trapped in a deadly game of cat-and-mouse.
Full disclosure, I thought Fede Alvarez’s 2013 Evil Dead remake was a fright-less bore that sorely lacked the original film’s touches of twisted humor and for a film that tried so hard to be a stone-dead serious reimagining of Sam Raimi’s debut, wasn’t scary, creepy or thrilling at all. That said, what Alvarez’s remake did well was the first-rate work done by his makeup artists and production design team. The film overall may have been nothing more than an empty exercise in blood and gore, but there were still elements brought to the table by both Alvarez and his crew that at least convinced me that with the right material he could put together a strongly constructed horror-thriller.
And I’m happy to say Don’t Breathe is that film.
Much like January, though maybe not as bad, August is usually a dumping ground for films studios don’t give a damn about as they gear up for the Oscar and holiday seasons, so the thought of a horror film getting released at the tail end of the dog days of summer might make one roll their eyes. Fortunately, for all you jaded, cynical moviegoers out there, you need not worry as Don’t Breathe is one of the most exciting, tension-packed films you’ll see this year.
And this is the same year that gave us The Witch, Green Room, The Conjuring 2, The Shallows and Lights Out.
That’s more than enough to make up for The Forest, The Boy and The Darkness.
The love child of Wait Until Dark and Panic Room, Don’t Breathe doesn’t aim to be anything more than what it offers in the trailers (which, by the way, I strongly recommend you avoid the most recent red-band trailer if you wish to avoid key plot turns that occur later on in the film). This is a straightforward, meat and potatoes, nuts and bolts style thriller, but simplicity is in no way a detriment to this film. No, on the contrary, it’s a great asset to it, and it’s how Alvarez, his top-notch crew and a strong cast navigate their way through the course of this film’s simple premise that makes it so exciting.
Clocking in at under 90 minutes, Alvarez keeps things tight and tense, both in atmosphere and pace. Though strong violence isn’t shied away from her, unlike Evil Dead, Alvarez trades the splatter for suspense, relying on a fantastic use of sound and a claustrophobic mood to deliver the tension. He and cinematographer Pedro Luque weave seamlessly through halls, stairways and rooms, establishing a great sense of the home’s geography from top to bottom. Many scenes are done in long, fluid tracking shots which helps create a near real-time like feel of the conflict taking place. This is technical craftsmanship done at its very best.
One of the film’s more interesting elements is the moral ambiguity Alvarez and his screenwriting partner Rodo Sayagues give to their characters, touching slightly on the plight of Detroit and the hardships of post-war veterans to blur the line between black and white. We shouldn’t empathize with teen robbers trying to steal from a blind veteran no matter how hard their circumstances might be, but as the film progresses, we find ourselves hoping for the best and fearing the worst for the two main culprits. That’s a testament to Jane Levy and Dylan Minnette’s performances. Levy does a great job at displaying both vulnerability and a strong will to survive whenever the moment calls for either trait. As the conscience of the three mischiefs, Minnette (previously seen in last year’s surprisingly enjoyable Goosebumps) has a young everyman quality to him that makes him easily sympathetic.
Veteran character actor Stephen Lang is tasked with the difficult job of conveying so much emotion with so little dialogue, and does a superb job at providing his character with shades of menace, anger, helplessness and sympathy (it’s hard not to feel for the guy when he sleeps with home videos of his deceased daughter playing in the background). Alvarez and Sayagues do walk a thin line with the blind man that nearly teeters over into total villain territory, but little bits of backstory, combined with Lang’s performance help add a touch of heartbreak to the character.
There’s one minor gripe that I have with this film, and that’s the final scene. It’s not bad by any means, nor eye-rolling implausible, but it’s a scene that feels like an alternative ending you’d get in the Blu-ray/DVD special features, and the shot prior to it would’ve been a perfect moment to end the film. Still, unnecessary ending or not, this is a damn great exercise in terror and suspense that accomplishes everything it’s meant to accomplish
Small-scale and simplistic in its premise, yet tightly-paced, tense and chilling in its execution, Don’t Breathe is white-knuckle home invasion thrill ride that scores big time from Fede Alvarez’s razor-sharp direction, strong performances and a great use of the film’s limited, maze-like setting. 2016 has been quite a banner year for the horror/thriller genre, and Don’t Breathe certainly stands at the top of the pack.
I give Don’t Breathe an A (★★★½).