Directed by: Fede Alvarez.
Written by: Fede Alvarez & Rodo Sayagues.
Starring: Jane Levy (Rocky), Stephen Lang (The Blind Man), Dylan Minnette (Alex), Daniel Zovatto (Money), Franciska Töröcsik (Cindy).
Don’t Breathe is an excellent example of a certain kind of horror movie. It doesn’t have the depth of the best recent horror movies – the parental angst of The Babadook or the sexual fears of It Follows for example – because the film is a much more stripped down thing. It places the audience in a house, along with three morally dubious characters – they have broken in to rob a blind man after all – and that raises the stakes when it turns out that blind man isn’t so helpless after all – trapping everyone in a dark house, in the middle of abandoned Detroit, with no one around to hear or see what is going on. It is a simple premise, but one that is brilliantly executed for at least the first hour of the film. Yes, the last act has an unnecessary twist – pushing the film into less of a moral grey area than I would have liked – and some moments that strain credibility in terms of how a character ends up in the exact right place at the exact right time, but my that point, you don’t care as an audience member. The first hour is so brilliant directed and performed by the two leads, you’re scared shitless, and just go along for the final act. It is easily one of the best horror films of the year.
The movie sketches the main character, Rocky (Jane Levy), quickly in the opening scenes – she lives in Detroit, has no money, an absolutely horrible mother, and a beloved young sister she wants to move to California with to save her from the childhood she had. She is dating Money (Daniel Zovatto) and the two of them, along with Alex (Dylan Minnette), who has a not so secret crush on Rocky, rob affluent houses in the suburbs. Alex’s dad works for a security company, which helps them get in and out undetected – and he’s adamant about obeying certain rules, that would limit their time in jail if caught. But Money gets a tip – a Blind Man (Stephen Lang), an Iraqi War Veteran, who lives alone – not in the affluent suburbs, but in one of the many abandoned neighborhoods of Detroit, where no else lives for blocks – and settled a lawsuit for hundreds of thousands of dollars when a rich girl killed his daughter in a hit and run. The money is supposed to be in a safe in that house – and how much trouble could an old blind guy be? A lot, it turns out. Things go wrong pretty much from the start, leaving Rocky and Alex to try to find their way out of the house, with the money – which is a lot harder than it seems.
The film is directed by Fede Alvarez – who did the very violent, and quite good, Evil Dead remake a few years ago – and smartly cast his lead from that film, Levy, in this one as well (even if I wasn’t a huge fan of her in that film). Levy is never going to win an Oscar for a film like Don’t Breathe, but she does a wonderful job of sketching Rocky in those opening scenes – telling us everything we need to know about her in a few brief moments – which gives her character the necessary depth later in the film. Often in horror movies, you don’t really care about the young people who have been lined up for the slaughter – you’re there to see them get killed after all – but you care about Rocky. When it comes time for it, Levy is also excellent at playing terrified – and not fake movie terrified, legitimately terrified. The Blind Man is played by Stephen Lang – one of those character actors most audience members will spend the entire film trying to figure out where they know him from, because he’s been in everything (answer by the way if you’re me – he’s the original Freddie Lounds in Michael Mann’s Manhunter – if you’re most people, he’s the bad guy in Avatar). He’s a good choice here – capable of looking harmless at first – and then moving with ruthless efficiency and violence later on. It’s a pretty terrifying performance. The other two characters – Alex and Money – aren’t given much in the way of depth – Money is greedy and perhaps a little violent, Alex follows Rocky around like a puppy dog – neither of which is smart.
The star of the film though really maybe Alvarez and his crew – especially cinematographer Pedro Luque, and the sound guys. Much like how Alvarez sketches the character of Rocky in a few brief moments, he and Luque do a brilliant job introducing the house – and its layout – in one, unbroken shot when we enter it. This gives us the entire layout of the house – which helps in movies like this, as we, much like the characters, try to orient ourselves in it during the terror to follow. While Alvarez isn’t above using jump scares in the film – he uses them sparingly, preferring to genuinely build suspense, by placing us with Rocky – often knowing precisely where The Blind Man is, and just trying not to be seen. The sound people do a brilliant job in amplifying the terror, without laying it on too thick – the ominous score is used sparingly, and there are many extended sequences that play out in almost total silence – just the creak of the floorboards, or the muffled sounds of breathing. For an hour or so, Don’t Breathe is a near perfect example of how you direct a horror film.
I do think the last act – as so many horror movie last acts are – isn’t as good as what proceeds it. There is a twist (that is in the trailer), that makes The Blind Man more evil than he needs to be – up until that point, the film exists in a moral grey area – Rocky and her friends are criminals after all, and The Blind Man has a right to defend his home and himself – but he certainly pushes things beyond what most people would find acceptable. Still, while your loyalties remain with Rocky – Levy makes her too sympathetic for them not to be – you understand where The Blind Man is coming from, until his “secrets” are revealed. The movie comes very close to crossing that fine line in horror movies – between terrifying and the downright unpleasant, but fortunately doesn’t stay there for long. There are also a few moments in that last act where The Blind Man goes from being a man skilled in combat, and with an intimate knowledge of the house, to a near clairvoyant – as he somehow perfectly intuits where people will be at the exact moment they’ll be there. That last one is common in many horror movies – and doesn’t bother me that much, still, given what came before, I wish the filmmakers had found an equally brilliant way to end things.
With Don’t Breathe, Alvarez confirms the potential that was present in Evil Dead back in 2013. In that film, Alvarez took a certified horror movie classic, and dove headlong into making it his own thing – the film had a different – darker and more brutal – than Sam Raimi’s original, and the sheer level of craft there carried it through its tough spots. Here, making his first original feature, he shows even more talent. Most horror movies are cookie cutter films – they copied what worked before, and what will work again, and to be honest, those can work and be enjoyable, if forgettable. Alvarez is edging closer to the James Wan level of horror movie directors – and in terms of working in mainstream American horror, there is no higher compliment in 2016.