I live in a one-hundred-year-old house, and there is nothing more frustrating than the hardwood loudly creaking under even the softest steps when you’re trying not to wake someone. When staying completely silent becomes a matter of life and death, like it is in the horror movie Don’t Breathe, every footfall becomes agonizing. Director Fede Alvarez and his writing partner Rodo Sayagues earn both agony and ecstasy with their twisted story. It is nothing short of splendid.
Horror movies have never held my imagination in particular, but I can appreciate finely crafted tales of terror. There is no finer movie-going experience than being reduced to repeating Dr. Ian Malcolm’s survivalist mantra – must go faster, must go faster! – during a horror movie as you watch the characters frantically attempt to escape their fate. The intense panic and dread Alvarez’s movie conjures throughout more than makes up for its generic shortcomings. Don’t Breathe leans too heavily on archetypes in the first act, some basic plot points don’t hold up to close scrutiny, and the climax briefly delves into the realm of torture porn that is out of step with the rest of the picture. Those are small problems, though, considering the psychological punch the movie delivers.
The set up for Don’t Breathe is comically simple. Three troubled teens – Rocky, Alex, and Money – earn a steady income and get their kicks by burglarizing houses. The trio learn of a huge score in the form of a blind veteran who got a huge settlement when a woman struck and killed his young daughter with a car. The blind man keeps the $300,000 payout in his own house, which sits in the middle of an otherwise abandoned, rundown Detroit neighborhood. Easy pickings. Or so they think.
Alex’s father works for a home protection service, so Alex has access to the keys and security codes of his dad’s clients. It just so happens that the veteran with all the cash is one of those clients. The fact that the keys are stored in a drawer in Alex’s own house, and not at the office, almost derailed the movie for me before it really even got started. The character of Rocky, a girl desperate to get her little sister out of a bad home life, also comes close to making the movie laughable.
Rocky wants nothing more than to take her sister with her to California, leaving behind a neglectful mother who cares nothing for her children. The flimsy characterizations Alvarez and Sayagues use here are unsophisticated, to say the least. During the one scene when we see Rocky at home, comforting her sister, we are shown the mother sitting on the couch with her most recent boyfriend. The man is covered in tattoos, the most prominent of which is a large swastika on the back of his hand. When she asks Rocky what she does to earn the money she has, the mother comments about how chapped the girl’s lips are. In this regard, Don’t Breathe takes its cues on subtlety from the film oeuvre of Rob Zombie.
And that’s exactly why when the director lets things rip in the second and third acts, the movie becomes an absolutely breathless, white-knuckle spectacle.
During the initial home invasion scene, when the young burglars gain access to the house, Alvarez and his cinematographer Pedro Luque employ a fluid, unbroken style. The camera seamlessly weaves in, out, and around what will become a hell house for both the characters and the audience. It’s a silent, sinewy camera movement that instantly calls to mind the virtuoso work of Emmanuel Lubezki in 2014’s Birdman.
Much of the success of Don’t Breathe depends on the terrifying performance of Stephen Lang, credited simply as The Blind Man. Lang is probably most recognizable as the hard-bitten Col. Miles Quaritch in James Cameron’s blockbuster Avatar. Here Lang expands on his no-nonsense brutality as The Blind Man, and he does it almost completely silently. His only major dialog comes toward the climax, as he gives a soliloquy about God that will strike a nerve with any atheist that believes it’s possible to be moral without a higher power. “A man can do anything when he realizes there is no God,” The Blind Man says. The anything he’s referencing obviously doesn’t mean something like awe-inspiring trips into the cosmos, but rather his disgusting and twisted ideas about justice concerning his dead daughter.
This turn late in the film – The Blind Man’s plans for the captive Rocky – doesn’t belong in Don’t Breathe. It’s the kind of torture porn terror designed merely to sicken the audience instead of keeping them in heightened suspense. Just the threat of what The Blind Man plans on doing to Rocky succeeds in dampening the tension, which the movie so brilliantly sustains otherwise.
A superb example of that “heightened suspense” is the five-or-so minute sequence when The Blind Man turns the tables on his prey. He plunges the basement into pitch-black and Alex and Rocky are forced to grope in the dark for a way out. It’s the most effective use of infrared camera effects I’ve ever seen in a movie. The impossibly dilated pupils of the actors lend an otherworldliness to the sequence that is as creepy as it is terrifying. Despite the movie’s weaker aspects, by the end of Don’t Breathe, I was shaky and shaken, truly appreciative of the visceral experience.
Why it got 4 stars:
- Despite its flaws, which mostly come from relying too heavily on the conventions of the genre, Don't Breathe is a nerve-shattering experience delivered in a focused 90 minutes.
- If you can't take being on edge for almost a whole movie, stay away, but if you can, it's definitely worth the heart palpitations.
Things I forgot to mention in my review, because, well, I'm the Forgetful Film Critic:
- I'm really regretting that I didn't have a chance to look at the 1967 home invasion thriller Wait Until Dark in preparation for Don't Breathe. That movie stars Audrey Hepburn as a blind woman in fear for her life when ruthless criminals break into her apartment. The parallels between the two movies are obvious, and Wait Until Dark is a movie I've been meaning to see for years.
- There's a significant portion of the film that deals with a ferocious dog that I didn't even get to in the main review. It starts to feel like a little too much, especially towards the end. It's one of those "when will it end?" scenarios, but the bit with the dog and a car will be recognizable to fans of the Stephen King book/movie Cujo.