August 25, 2016
Don’t Breathe offers a surprisingly refreshing approach to the horror genre by subverting expectations at every turn and providing a story full of complex three-dimensional characters. Don’t expect a gorefest this time around from Evil Dead filmmakers Fede Alvarez and Sam Rami. Don’t Breathe skips the overt physical trauma of the previous work to focus on psychological terror, resulting in an emotional gut-punch that will leave your stomach in knots and a strong desire to keep the lights on.
Rocky (Jane Levy), Money (Daniel Zovatto), and Alex (Dylan Minnette) are three Detroit kids who specialize in low-risk home invasions. They move quickly and keep their targets focused on wealthy customers of a home security business Alex’s father works for. When Money gets a tip that a blind former veteran is rumored to be holding $600,000, their dreams of escape from desolate Detroit seem right at their fingertips. The trio break into his home in the middle of the night and are too far in before they realize the Blind Man (Stephan Lang) is not what he appears.
Alvarez uses sound and framing to create sensations of claustrophobia, suspense, and terror. The lack of a soundtrack and the light ambient sound design removes the traditional horror movies audio cues meaning that a scare can happen any time and come from anywhere. We are placed firmly within the experiences of the characters, making us strain for sounds just as they are. Similarly, Alvarez uses framing to only show the audience what he wants you to see, right from the opening moments, where he breaks away from a still, dread-filled street scene to introduce our main characters in the process of breaking into a home. Each member of the cast is featured primarily in close-up, intimate shots. Our POV becomes as limited as theirs, increasing audience fear and forcing us to share in the terror each of them feel.
This applies as much to Lang’s Blind Man, whose movements become more deliberate, precise, and vicious as the film progresses. Generously, Alvarez provides release from the constant tension by utilizing the multiple characters to shift focus. As each of the home invaders take their individual turn evading the Blind Man, the others get a break to gather themselves and determine a new course of action. This gift, however, becomes smaller and smaller throughout the film as Alvarez eventually hits the throttle, never looking back.
None of this would matter, however, it if weren’t for the wonderful job Alvarez and co-writer Rodo Sayagues did of developing deep characterizations for each member of the main cast. Jane Levy’s Rocky resorts to theft as a means of securing a better life for herself and her beloved younger sister. Many times she’s given chances to get out of the house, but often turns back for the money. This makes the continual opportunities she’s presented to escape more and more heartbreaking as she refuses to take them. Dylan Minnette’s Alex is the smartest of the bunch and is presented as the son of a loving father. His only motive seems to be a devotion to Roxy, following the theme Alvarez and Sayagues have set of love being a driving force. Daniel Zovatto’s Money seems to be the most superficial, stealing because he can and only being in it for the money; though when it counts, he proves his nobility.
Though rare in a horror film, Alvarez and Sayagues impressively allow for Lang’s Blind Man to be as layered as the other characters, starting out as the initial victim and then revealing himself as the true alpha predator. Lang’s Blind Man acts like a force of nature moving with laser-focus through his home, yet he’s not just some supernatural force. Like his counterparts, he is driven by love and represents the way that it can get twisted, even in the best of us.
Where most horror films feel by the numbers, Don’t Breathe is a unique theatrical experience. Just when you think things can’t become more intense, Alvarez and Sayagues present new ways to raise the stakes, twisting and challenging expectations the whole way. Though there are a few moments that feel irrational or out of place for a film so smartly executed, they can be chalked up to the horror tropes everyone knows. Don’t Breathe is a surprise well worth your time, horror fan or not.
Star Rating: 4.5 out of 5.
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