Don’t Breathe Is A Gloriously Gruelling Experience
Common decency alone is enough to stop most people from robbing war veterans, but if you still think that’s a viable idea, Don’t Breathe should convince you otherwise. Living in a destitute Detroit, Rocky (Jane Levy), her boyfriend Money (Daniel Zovatto), and their friend Alex (Dylan Minnette) have taken to robbing houses. Conveniently for this trio of thieves, Alex’s father has his own security company, allowing easy access to keys and a unique understanding of alarm systems. With his confidence bolstered by recent success, Money comes up with a bold new target: a war veteran (Stephen Lang) who won a large settlement after his daughter was killed by a reckless driver. Simplifying matters, this unnamed man lives in an abandoned neighbourhood—and he’s blind. Determined to raise the funds necessary to escape Detroit with her little sister, Rocky agrees to participate in this questionable venture and Alex follows her lead, but the trio soon discovers that they’ve severely underestimated their victim.
Three years ago, director Fede Alvarez divided horror fans with his Evil Dead remake, but even those who were disappointed with that film will find much to admire in Alvarez’s follow-up. In fact, this film plays more like an Evil Dead movie than the remake. Indulging in the same kind of relentless torment that a young Sam Raimi specialized in—with little of his signature levity—Alvarez finds stylish, inventive traps for his characters throughout. He also avoids most of the obvious clichés that the film’s premise would seem to invite.
Rather than present the blind man as a vulnerable victim—an age-old horror convention—Alvarez makes him a wildly unpredictable threat. As he pursues the thieves throughout the house, they hide in plain sight, keenly aware that a bullet could fly in their direction at any moment. Alvarez also uses modern technology to good effect in both content (when the thieves get separated, they text updates to one another) and execution (a form of night vision cinematography gives us an unusually credible sense of darkness). Wisely taking simple solutions off the table, Alvarez immerses his characters in a deranged haunted house rigged with countless traps and obstacles. Plus, everyone involved is a criminal (yes, the blind man has a spooky secret of his own), so police intervention is never a viable option.
While Alvarez breathes new life into most of his influences, fans of the genre will recognize parallels to French extremism gems like High Tension and Inside, as well as the more accessible claustrophobia of Panic Room. But whereas the homeowner under siege in the latter is trapped by thieves, the homeowner in Don’t Breathe is always on the offensive, using his familiarity with these surroundings to compensate for his lack of sight.
Taken together, Alvarez’s strategies make for a carefully calibrated swiss watch of suspense. Sure, the thieves are more blandly generic (and unsympathetic) than they need to be and plausibility is stretched throughout, but rather than bore us with the endless exposition of so many modern horror films, Don’t Breathe treats us to a never-ending string of expertly crafted set pieces. Shortcomings (and the occasional lapse in taste) aside, this is the visceral, nail-biting cinema of a horror fan’s dreams—and nightmares.