by Justin MadoreThere’s a certain hesitation I have when I go to see horror and comedy movies, regardless of the praise they may or may not be receiving. People rarely agree on the merits of these genres, since what scares you or makes you laugh varies so much from person to person. Because of this, films widely considered classics of either genre are few and far between. We can all understand the emotional impact of a well-made drama, but it’s harder to craft a scary scene that effectively casts a wide enough net to get under everyone’s skin. So, going into Don’t Breathe, it was easy to dismiss the praise that it was getting. A horror movie from the director of the Evil Dead reboot releasing in late August? No way could this be good. Boy was I wrong, because Don’t Breathe is one of the most pleasant surprises I’ve seen in theaters since Straight Outta Compton.
The film’s trio of leads are young thieves trying to escape their personal issues in the rotting city of Detroit and move on to happier days. The only thing preventing them is money. When they hear of a surefire score in robbing a blind man of a small fortune in an abandoned neighborhood, they see an opportunity that can’t be passed up. But the robbery ends up being anything but a cakewalk, as our naive burglars are forced to fight for their lives.
The script starts providing interesting characterization early by establishing the protagonists as particularly shifty (but not monstrous) individuals. Their motivations are clear and understandable. For instance, Jane Levy’s character, Rocky, is trying to pull herself and her younger sister out of an abusive relationship with their mother. Despite sympathetic facts like that one, you have to keep reminding yourself that these people are doing a terrible thing. The script makes the characters ride an ethical line pretty hard, shading their backstories in as the narrative takes different twists and turns. While no one in the movie is a saint, there is definitely an antagonist whose morals are far more distorted than those of the other characters.
After a quick initial setup and introduction of these characters, Rocky, Alex (Dylan Minnette), and Money (Daniel Zovatto) arrive at the house of the blind man (Stephen Lang). There’s a visually interesting scene a la Panic Room in which the camera sweeps through the house, panning around and focusing on certain objects or building features that will play a crucial role later on as the blind man tries to hunt the intruders down. In this way, Alvarez begins to build the tension, as I was always asking myself: “When will that get used later?” And once this tension starts getting ratcheted up, it doesn’t go away until about three minutes before the credits, and that’s not hyperbole. This is because for the majority of its duration, the film feels like one extended scene. It all takes place inside a very confined location. There aren’t any cut-aways to characters outside of the house. By keeping the characters restricted to a tight location and almost never allowing them to leave that location, it doesn’t give the audience time to breathe, and with a film that only clocks in at about 80 minutes, that’s ok.As might be expected from a movie with a title that calls us not to make a noise, Alvarez works a lot with sound design to keep the tension high. As previously mentioned, the house isn’t particularly large, so in combination with a minimalist score, whenever Alex or Rocky step on a creaky floor tile or knock over a shelf, it presents a huge amount of danger. Sound is their greatest enemy and the blind man’s greatest ally. There’s one particular scene halfway through that plays this up to the Nth degree, as the blind man shuts off the power to the basement, and the intruders are blinded in the dark, left to stumble around and make noise. The power tilts in the blind man’s favor, and the resulting scene is spectacularly thrilling.
While I will say that a lot of what happens in the movie makes logical sense (e.g. the characters’ decisions and the geography of the house), there is a good number of “you gotta be fucking kidding me” moments, and this will be a problem for some people. In the beginning of the film, Money is supposed to sedate the blind man with sleeping gas, and for reasons never explained, the sleeping gas fails to work. There are quite a few fake-out “deaths” as well. But what will turn most people off is the suspension of disbelief required to buy that a blind man could effectively fight off three trespassers by, say, shooting them with a gun. It’s understandable that he’s more adept to sound, but the way he navigates and some of the tricks he’s able to pull off over the course of the film may have some people scratching their heads.
Regardless, Don’t Breathe is a tense twist on the home invasion horror-thriller subgenre that doesn’t let up for a second once it gets going. The actors all play their parts well, as Jane Levy adds another impressive horror performance to her catalog (Evil Dead), and Stephen Lang is a totally horrific badass who may well end up becoming one of the more memorable horror antagonists of the decade. Combine this with impressive sound design, a strong script and some enthusiastic direction from Fede Alvarez and the result is a horror movie that blows most of its competition out of the water. Aside from some minor gripes, Don’t Breathe is a superb addition to the horror renaissance (The Witch, The Conjuring 2, Green Room) that’s making this year one of the best the genre has seen in some time.
4 out of 5 stars