Don’t Breathe (2016) – Movie Review
Directed by: Fede Alvarez
Written by: Fede Alvarez & Rodo Sayagues
Starring: Jane Levy, Dylan Minnette, Daniel Zovatto & Stephen Lang
Music: Roque Baños
Release Date: September 9th 2016
There are two almost-universal truths in the horror genre; most remakes are terrible and if a horror sequel has come out a year after the original, it’s probably going to be absolutely awful. However, director Fede Alvarez was able to defy the former convention and directed and co-wrote a remake of Sam Raimi’s 1981’s ‘The Evil Dead‘ with 2013’s ‘Evil Dead‘ where Raimi acted as a producer. The movie, while not being a perfect tonal replication of the original, was more polished, more violent and even added some solid characterisation, though Bruce Campbell’s absence was felt.
After already proving himself to be a horror director that defies convention Alvarez’s next project is an original horror movie called ‘Don’t Breathe‘ which reunited him with producer Sam Raimi and lead actor Jane Levy. Responding to criticism against ‘Evil Dead‘s obscene amount of gore and blood, Alvarez has instead decided to make a horror film with little violence (relatively speaking) and no supernatural elements. Can this drastic change in tone and style fit with Alvarez’s sensibilities or is it a step too far in the opposite direction?
Set in a neglected suburban segment in Detroit, ‘Don’t Breathe‘ follows Rocky (Levy), Alex (Minnette) and Money (Zovatto), a trio of delinquents who rob houses thanks to Alex’s dad being the head of a security company so they can work around the neighbourhood’s various security measures. Rocky is hoping to get away from Detroit with her younger sister for a better life and this desperation convinces her to take a tip from Money that a local, blind war veteran (Lang) is sitting on top of a $300,000 payload. However, after breaking into the blind man’s house, his enhanced senses, brutal combat prowess and knowledge of his own home turn the tables on them and it’s a fight for survival as they’re locked in his house with seemingly no escape.
The basic characteristics of our main trio are simple and unremarkable, but they’re solid enough in which to quickly emphasise with them all to the appropriate degree. Rocky is the best result you could ask for from a broken home, with a lousy mother and an alcoholic step-father with her main motivator being her younger sister who she wants to escape this life with. Alex is a meak, mild-mannered teenager who is only tolerated by Money because of his ability to steal his dad’s security keys and codes for all the houses they break into and he’s only along for the ride because he has a crush on Rocky. And Money is…kinda the worst, he’s pretty insufferable and with a movie like this where the threat of the blind man has to be quickly established it’s clear who of these three will be the first to bite it to establish that this is serious business.
But it’s pretty hard to root for three characters who make their living through robbing innocent people, especially a blind war veteran with no family so the movie has to make the supposed antagonist even worse by default. This means that the character of the blind man has a few hidden secrets that will not be spoiled in this review but…yeah, the plot goes into some pretty dark places, even though the movie does bend over backwards slightly to remove all moral grey area considering the fact that these people literally planned to rob a lonely blind man.
Okay, so in terms of character and structure, ‘Don’t Breathe‘ is hardly pushing any boundaries. But since the movie excels in almost every other facet it’s easy to forgive it for having a slightly predictable structure. In terms of pure horror and the craftsmanship that the genre requires, Fede Alvarez has outdone himself as ‘Don’t Breathe‘ is an intense experience with very few respites. Once the trio enter the house around 15 minutes into the film, for the remaining 70 minutes my heart was in my throat. The setting of a blind man’s house may seem limiting but the filmmakers get great mileage out of the setting. One of the most important scenes of the movie has the trio walking around the ground floor of the house in a single, lengthy camera-shot and not only does this help to hold the tension throughout the sequence and cause your eyes to scan every corner of the screen, but it also subliminally establishes the geography of the house for the audience.
And because the blind man has intimate knowledge of his surroundings (which comes in handy when he switches off the lights to effectively blind his robbers) and has even placed a few objects at specific places so he can find out where he is (when running around his basement, he raises his hand to make sure he touches a doorframe so he knows where he is and at one point he reaches out his left hand to touch a metal desk-fan to find get his bearings) means that the odds are stacked against the robbers even before you take into account his bloodhungry pet dog and his enhanced senses like hearing and smell. However, when it comes to smell, he uses this skill to smell the shoes the robbers leave at the back door from the other side of the room to find out how many robbers there are and even though Rocky very clearly smoked a cigarette before entering the house, his sense of smell is never utilised again so this is not only a missed opportunity but it’s also a plot-hole.
But the brutal actions of the blind man are brought to the forefront even more by an incredible performance from Stephen Lang. Not only do you buy this guy as a potentially vulnerable man alone in his house but he also sells being a incomparable fighter who will use everything at his disposal to fight back and has no qualms in killing these teens. Lang’s dominating presense and physical commitment to one of the most haunting horror figures since Tobin Bell’s Jigsaw Killer in ‘Saw‘ almost gives him an unearthly feel and his blank eyes give the impression of someone whose very soul has been lost due to what he’s seen in the war and what’s happened in his past that landed him the $300,000 he’s sitting on. He’s sympathetic but at the same time what he’s putting these teenagers through is someone that nobody should experience.
And here’s the unspoken subtext of ‘Don’t Breathe‘. We have this region of Detroit that has clearly been neglected economically and then we have people like Rocky, Alex and Money committing robberies which drives more people out of the area and Rocky is only robbing these homes because she wants to get out of poverty along with her sister and escape their broken home. The blind man is the only resident on the street where he lives (which helps to isolate the cast and show that no help is coming) and he’s the “last man standing” against this urban threat to the robbers who, in-part, have driven people away from the neighbourhood. It’s this self-perpetuating cycle where poverty begets poverty and crime begets more crime that allows a scenario where both the robbers and the blind man can be both sympathetic and humanised but also acknowledge how wrong they are with some being more dangerous and more loathsome than others.
As for the rest of the cast, Jane Levy reveals how absolutely game she is to let Fede Alvarez put her through hell and back and hopefully she’ll break through into the mainstream very soon because she’s incredibly talented and deserves it. While Dylan Minnette is good, I couldn’t help but be distracted by the fact that he was in the family-friendly horror ‘Goosebumps‘ earlier this year and now he’s in the adult, intense and violent horror ‘Don’t Breathe‘. But I guess that demonstrates that this kid has got some range. Finally we have Daniel Zovatto doing his best Ninja from Die Antwoord impression which, while clearly the intention, is just as annoying as it sounds.
What’s most surprising about ‘Don’t Breathe‘ is that even though sound plays a key factor in the tension-building and the scares, there are relatively few jump-scares in the movie. In fact, you might be able to count them on one-hand, which is a remarkable amount of restraint which works in the film’s favour. Because if jump-scares happen every minute, they lose impact, but when they’re spaced-out the way they are in ‘Don’t Breathe‘ there’s maximum build-up and maximum pay-off. A lot of the scares come from the brutal acts of violence committed as well as the very real threat the trio are up against. As for the horror, ‘Don’t Breathe‘ goes into some very dark places near the end with some horrifying imagery that might not sit well for some audiences but in terms of horror, it meets the definition and then some.
Being a studio-horror film, ‘Don’t Breathe‘ has been afforded a slightly larger budget than most horror films get; $9.9M. That money has been put to great use because ‘Don’t Breathe‘ is a brilliant production all around with a hugely detailed setting, great make-up effects, amazing lighting, awesome stunt-work, a tension-shredding score that seems to give the house itself a personality and mood and we also have some of the best sound-design I’ve heard all year. Horror/Genre movies like this tend to get ignored completely during awards season, but sound plays such an integral part in making ‘Don’t Breathe‘ work that I hope it at least gets a sound-nomination come awards-season. ‘Don’t Breathe‘ is a finely polished piece of cinema and one of the most accomplished horror-productions in years.
With ‘Don’t Breathe‘, Fede Alvarez proves that he’s not all about gore and bombast by directing to perfection an intense, grounded and frightening horror movie that makes its leads both sympathetic yet not free from consequence. Everything in terms of the production values clicks, the performances are solid particularly from a haunting Stephen Lang and while the set-up and characters aren’t really going against the grain, it’s a strong enough starting point for you to instantly identify with them and follow them over this relatively short and brutal journey. While Alvarez’s ‘Evil Dead‘ and ‘Don’t Breathe‘ couldn’t be more different, this one-two knock-out has solidified Alvarez, Sam Raimi and Jane Levy as a horror-trio to be reckoned with.
I give ‘Don’t Breathe‘ 4 and a half stars out of 5.
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Posted: 20th Oct 16