Movie Review: Don’t Breathe.
Don’t Breathe is a tense and brutal horror movie that doesn’t reinvent the wheel, opting instead to step on the gas for 120 minutes.
Director Fede Alvarez reunites with producers Rob Tapert and Sam Raimi and star Jane Levy for another gory go-around. Having turned heads with his remake of Raimi’s cult classic, Evil Dead, Alvarez pens his own horror gem, Don’t Breathe. With a modest budget, the film is almost gauranteed to be a commercial success, but will it become another feather in Alvarez’ cap? While Don’t Breathe isn’t exactly a magnum opus, it is a rock solid horror movie with a unique sensibility.
Don’t Breathe (2016)
Three teens are attempting to escape the social and economic stagnation of Detroit by stealing enough money to move to California. Rocky (Jane Levy) is a young woman who is constantly abused by her alcoholic mother, plans to run away with her younger sister. Her boyfriend Money (Daniel Zovatto) is tired of petty scores and wants pull one big job. He is tipped off to a blind veteran who won a large civil suit against a rich family that accidentally killed his daughter.
Money and Rocky must rely on Alex (Dylan Minnette), an introvert with a crush on Rocky, who can use his father’s security company to get keys to the blind man’s house. Once inside, they discover that the unstable soldier (Stephen Lang) has dark secrets, and is far from helpless as he hunts the thieves through his fortress of a home.
More than the Sum
I almost have to review Don’t Breathe backwards. If I try to break down it’s component pieces, it is going to sound like I hated the movie. The acting was solid, but the characters were rather cliche. The pacing was nearly flawless, but when it did get spastic towards the end it almost botched the whole experience. The film relies heavily on common horror tropes, but gives them little nudges to make them feel organic to the piece. See? It sounds like a pretty blah movie if you pick it apart…but I left the theater with a really positive experience.
The key to understanding Fede Alvarez’s film is that he is adopting many elements of the genre and putting them together in a satisfying and effective manner. Much like Evil Dead, Alvarez didn’t cut the timber and saw the planks, but he did build one hell of a house with the materials. Don’t Breathe doesn’t try to flip conventions on their head. It embraces them and uses them with wicked efficiency.
Don’t Breathe is technically sound, especially considering the very modest budget of 9 million dollars. The sound work is impeccable, especially since so much of the film relies on silence as the protagonists attempt to escape a killer who can hear even the slightest sound. Light and dark become essential tools for Alvarez, dipping the audience into the sightless experience of Lang’s character. Except for the final sequence, the film has a consistent pace that ratchets up the tension, releasing brief bursts of violence before turning the screws once again. The conclusion of the first arc where it seems Lang has successfully thwarted the intruders is cathartic in it’s violent climax. It becomes a pivotal moment.
Turning the Tables
The house where 90% of the story takes place is elaborately rendered and almost becomes the main character. The visuals are often excellent, especially the steady-cam tour of the house which manages to flaunt many of the hazards and tools of destruction that will become central to the action. While Jane Levy and Stephen Lang are very good in their roles, its hard to root for either when the story pits a thief willing to rob a grieving blind veteran against a vengeance-addled psycho. The director mostly keeps them separate, allowing the house to become the main antagonist for much of the first half of the film.
The climax of the first arc is the first direct confrontation between Lang and Levy, and ends pretty decisively for him. At this moment you get a clever passing of the mantle of who dominates your sympathy. Lang was mostly sympathetic at the start. He’s the wronged party, and while he is vicious, he’s in the right. As the arc progresses, you get hints that he is very much in the wrong, and by the time he triumphs, you’re now invested in seeing Rocky and Alex escape. It’s a nice turn, though the scene where they regain their freedom has a really gross element to it that put a lot of people off in the audience I was with.
I was very excited to see this film. The trailer seemed to be filled with clever elements and great camera work. I was especially excited about the prospect of the teens having to play “red light, green light” every time Lang entered the room, and the way in which the camera telescoped in and out of the scene, mirroring the protagonists focus. When alone, they were searching for an exit and the shot was wide. When Lang enters, they were focused on his every move, and the camera came in close and tight very quickly to demonstrate his looming presence. Those moments exist early, but are not as dynamic in the finished product as in the trailer. I would actually have liked more cat and mouse before the violence broke out.
Slight disappointment withstanding, I did very much enjoy Don’t Breathe. It has a novel premise, and uses it as a blueprint to mold existing horror tropes into a cohesive whole. There is plenty of action, plenty of suspense, and it is executed with fine attention to detail. Don’t Breathe isn’t going to set the world of horror on fire, but it does show that the team of Alvarez, Tapert/Raimi, and Levy have got the genre down cold and we should expect more satisfying frights from them in the future.