Don’t Breathe Review

Posted: September 12, 2016 by Daniel Simpson (PG Cooper) in PG Cooper's Movie Reviews

don-t-breathe-poster01Written by Daniel Simpson

A few years ago, horror icon Sam Raimi handpicked an aspiring young director named Fede Alvarez to direct a remake of Raimi’s beloved Evil Dead. A lot of people dismissed that film, presumably out of a loyalty to the original films, but it was actually a pretty strong movie. I wouldn’t call the film a triumph or a modern classic, but it was a really strong horror film that made a great case for the talents of Alvarez. Three years later and Alvarez has returned with another horror film, this time an original IP called Don’t Breathe. The film once again shows off Alvarez handle on tone and his ability to craft compelling set-pieces, and without the chip of being a remake on its shoulders the film has been praised by critics and horror fans alike.

Set in modern day Detroit, the film follows Rocky (Jane Levy), Alex (Dylan Minnette), and Money (Daniel Zovatto), three young people who have taken to robbing houses in order to get by. The trio have a system and are modestly successful, but need a bigger score if they ever want to escape their impoverished conditions fully. That chance comes with their newest mark; a blind veteran (Stephen Lang) living alone in a woefully under populated neighborhood who has recently inherited a $300,000 settlement. The three break in one night, but soon learn that their supposed victim is much more formidable and dangerous than they ever suspected.

The plot description will immediately invoke comparisons to the 1967 thriller Wait Until Dark, which also dealt with a group of criminals attempting to rob an unsuspecting blind person. What Alvarez and co-writer Rodo Sayagues have done is switch the perspective from the victims to the criminals, which is actually a far more daring choice. It’s easy to empathize with a young blind woman (played by Audrey Hepburn no less), while it’s much harder to empathize with a group of thieves stealing from an old blind veteran. However The Blind Man (as he is credited) in Don’t Breathe has a dark streak of his own and there are some really disturbing twists pertaining to his character. All of the characters are very flawed here and the film is also perceptive to the outside forces which have helped shape them. A lot of attention is paid to the poor state of Detroit, both visually and in dialogue, and it is heavily implied that such conditions are a primary factor in motivating the crime spree the protagonists are engaged in. Similarly, The Blind Man lost his sight while serving an Iraq and other subsequent tragedies in his life were not his fault either. Alvarez does not excuse either character for their actions, but he is aware of how they find themselves in such places. What Alvarez really seems interested in is the domino effect of misfortune, specifically how the misfortunes each character has suffered leads to a series of bad decisions which further perpetuate misery and hardship.

Much as I like the film’s exploration of misfortune, I don’t think it works perfectly. In particularly I think the film goes too far throwing hardship at the Rocky character. While the atmosphere of the city and the performances do a perfectly solid job explaining why the three are robbing houses, there is also a scene showing Rocky at home with her one-dimensionally trashy mother (who is dating a skinhead no less) ridiculing her daughter. Rocky goes on to tell a story about how when she was young her mother would blame her for her father leaving and would lock the young girl in the trunk of her car. Not only does this seem a heavy-handed effort to earn audience sympathy for the character, but the amount of misery she is subjected to is almost comical. Similarly, while the twists involving The Blind Man and the ending of the film do play into the core themes well, they don’t really hold up to logical scrutiny. I try not to be too hung up on “plot holes”, but given the small scale and intimate nature of Don’t Breathe they do stand out. Ultimately, the story beats these ideas introduce make the holes worth it, but they are there and worth noting.

Much as I’ve discussed the films themes and aspects of the script, ultimately Don’t Breathe sinks or swims based on the execution of director Fede Alvarez. Alvarez creates the right dark tone early on which is maintained, with some exception, from beginning to end. He moves the camera in an omniscient way and shows a lot of visual confidence. Particularly impressive is the way Alvarez foreshadows aspects of the film purely with visuals in ways which are noticeable but not distracting. Alvarez also makes great use of a limited set, drumming up a lot of suspense. There is a lot of patience and moments of quiet. Even the score is mostly composed of low, ambient sounds. The auditory emphasis is placed on breathing, creaks on the floorboards, and shuffling in the dark. These are classic elements in creating suspense, but the effect is doubled given sound is the primary means The Blind Man uses to find the protagonists. Finally, Alvarez crafts a number of really thrilling and well-executed set-pieces involving these characters trying to escape. The highlights are a chase in a completely black basement (shot in a sort of monochrome), a bit involving breaking glass, and a scene with a car and a dog. If Alvarez makes any major directorial stumbles, it’s that the third act runs just a little bit too long. I get that the idea was to create a feeling of relentless horror, but the film does start to run out of steam.

Overall, Don’t Breathe lives up to the strong word of mouth that’s built around it. This is a very well-crafted horror movie with some memorable moments, disturbing ideas, and some interest in exploring other themes. The film may lean into heavy-handedness from time to time and it could have been sharper, but even with its flaws this is still a pretty accomplished work. If nothing else, it’s refreshing to see a horror movie that doesn’t revolve around ghosts or some other supernatural force and the film also proves Evil Dead was no fluke. Fede Alvarez continues to show a lot of promise and I can’t wait to see what he does next.

B+

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