Film Review: 'Don't Breathe'
This might be the first time that I've ever done exactly what the title of the movie told me to do.
That's not easy to achieve, mainly because I don't know anyone that follows directions from movie titles anyway. But in this case, it was completely involuntary; I was so immersed in Don't Breathe, a masterful thriller by director Fede Alvarez (Evil Dead), that I literally could not look away from the screen. With pointed direction, Alvarez accounts for every last detail in service of an already-strong script, and while this isn't your blood-and-guts or creepy monsters type of scary, the end result is exceptionally more terrifying than either.
There’s beauty in simplicity, as they say. So things are as simple as they get when the film gives us only a handful of characters to follow: a trio of young robbers who make their living pilfering homes. Led by the tough-talking Money (Daniel Zovatto), their job is made easier with Alex's (Dylan Minnette) access to client data in his father’s security systems company, giving them the intel they need to pick helpless targets. Thanks to that, they find their next heist in a old, decrepit home with a wealthy, retired military veteran (Stephen Lang, playing the aged version of his Avatar character) living inside. That, and he's totally blind. Bingo.
It's an especially opportune heist for Rocky (Jane Levy), who longs to escape her tough life in Detroit and make a peaceful living in California, with her little sister (Emma Bercovici) in tow. While we look down on her for her job, Rocky's an easy character to empathize with, which makes the terrors that await them inside the house all the more scary. Their begin their heist at 2AM, and nothing good happens at 2AM.
Surprise surprise; things go wrong fast, which (and I say this elatedly) is the only predictable thing about this movie. There's no easy way inside. They can't bust a lock. Money's homemade knockout gas doesn't knockout the blind man. But all of that doesn't compare to what the blind man is capable of: he doesn't even need to see his house to know it better than the robbers that can. And with nothing but milky gray eyes in his scarred face, the sight elicits a chilling uneasiness. He may not see you, but he sees everything.
Alvarez and Rodo Sayagues, who co-wrote the script, know this very well, and utilize every bit of minutiae at their disposal to create a lethal villain. Yes, the house is dark and creaky, and he has a giant rotweiler protecting the door - these things are merely scary on looks alone. But the blind man is so deathly precise with his tracking of the robbers that it begs one to fathom the extent of his abilities. There's locks on every door, and he's planned for every contingency. So escaping isn't cake, and to follow Rocky and company to find a way out of this hellish house is magnetically attention-getting. For the entire ordeal to be so compelling is a testament to how effective of a storyteller Alvarez is.
In fact, it's the hand of Alvarez that makes Don’t Breathe a real shell-shocker. It's clear he's a big fan of the haunted house horror flicks, of thrillers, of home invasions gone wrong, and he injects that passion by using genre tropes in brutally effective and creative ways. In a way, Don't Breathe resembles a lot of what came before it, but it's also so uniquely spun that the product is entirely new altogether. While it's odd to label a horror/thriller movie as "refreshing," that's certainly the effect Alvarez has on the screenplay.
But where Don't Breathe is perhaps its most effective is in how the blind man's "weakness" ironically becomes the very lens through which we watch the film. Every sound, touch, and even smell counts (he might be better at it than his dog), and even the smallest rustle of fabric can be the biggest tip-off. Alvarez directs our attention to the littlest things, and in doing so puts us right in the shoes of the ill-fated thieves - the last place we want to be, but the most moving one as well. And with even more to uncover once things get especially dire, the film is that much more enthralling because Alvarez has set the scene so masterfully in sound design, script, and sharp direction. This is how movies should be made: with creativity, originality, and a deep respect for the genre and for the audience. So don't be surprised if you start holding your breath too.
Rated R. 88 minutes.
Written by Fede Alvarez & Rodo Sayagues.
Directed by Fede Alvarez.
Starring Stephen Lang, Jane Levy, Dylan Minnette, and Daniel Zovatto.