Don’t Breathe is the sophomore feature effort from Uruguayan-born filmmaker Fede Alvarez, who followed up a string of short films, and an episode of the From Dusk Till Dawn television series, with the well-received, creepy, gore-filled remake Evil Dead. While the redo discarded much of the signature humour associated with Sam Raimi’s original films, Alvarez’s confident, stylish direction made the film a horror standout in 2013 and marked the up-and-coming director as one to keep an eye on. And thus far, the filmmaker’s potential has certainly been realised. Be prepared, the title of his latest helps define this viewing experience.
The bare bones of Don’t Breathe’s narrative isn’t exactly original. It’s survivalist, home-invasion horror, set in close quarters, in one night. The major point of difference is the film has us rooting for individuals who would normally be painted as antagonists. The plot follows a trio of young thieves who target the house of a blind war veteran who has come into a lot of money. Suffice it to say, the late-night robbery doesn’t go according to plan. Turns out the vet is in no way a pushover, and the young crooks soon find themselves fighting for their lives.
Screenwriters Alvarez and Rodo Sayagues, who have worked together since the director’s short-film days, keep the plot tight and the characterisation simple, providing just enough during the introductory act so that we know whom it is we’ll be rooting for in the tough night ahead. While the pacing certainly benefits from the quick, no-nonsense character intros, a touch more backstory may have worked to have us further affected when the threat kicks in. Still, it’s an impressively taut screenplay that keeps the focus on tension first and foremost.
Jane Levy, who impressed in Alvarez’s Evil Dead, plays Rocky, a woman who wants a score big enough to get her and her little sister away from their abusive mother to a new life in California. Dylan Minnette stars as Alex, who clearly has a thing for Roocky and whose father conveniently owns the security company protecting the houses they target, making him quite the valuable team member. And finally there’s Daniel Zovatto’s Money, the loose cannon of the group, who also happens to be Rocky’s boyfriend. And that about covers it. The less said about Stephen Lang’s The Blind Man the better.
The overall cast is very good, with Levy especially bringing her A-game to a role that rides quite the roller coaster of emotion. That being said, in the land of darkness The Blind Man is king, and Lang reigns supreme. This is a fantastic horror villain, a creation that you almost immediately fear, whose blindness serves as a menacing augmentation as much as it does a physical limitation. It’s a creation that is made all the more fearsome thanks to Lang’s pitch-perfect portrayal; the man is primal, emotionally broken, deeply deranged, and completely unforgiving.
If there are some qualms, they relate to the film’s narrative familiarity and the usual poor choices made by the marketing team. Firstly, horror aficionados won’t be too gobsmacked by the plot and its turns. Don’t get me wrong, this stress-inducing ride is a hell of a lot of fun, but while we don’t usually get it all done with this much class, we’ve nevertheless seen a lot of similar plot points explored in the past. And it’s a little disappointing that a few of these recognisable turns involve our “victims” making pretty silly choices, which is, admittedly, a tired trope of the horror genre.
And now to that marketing. It’s frustrating, nay, downright infuriating that we are in an era where the likes of trailers, TV spots and featurettes happily drop plot reveals, even if they’re delivered in rapid edits. Those with quick eyes notice them, damn it. Don’t Breathe has a number of moments that simply should not have been given away anywhere.
Overall, this is strong work from Alvarez. The director pulls out all the stops to make Don’t Breathe a very tense experience, barely letting up for the entire running time. There’s no fat here, just lean, muscular filmmaking from a filmmaker completely at ease with the medium. Some sequences even bring to mind some of the greats, such as Alfred Hitchcock, with his use of framing to drive suspense, and David Fincher, with the type of genius camera work he brought to Panic Room. Of course, Alvarez has a great team highly deserving of kudos: Pedro Luque’s cinematography, Naaman Marshall’s production design, and the creative score from Roque Baños, to name a few.
Don’t Breathe does what it does well, very well. Despite the familiarity of certain plot elements, some silliness that creeps in and the irritating nature of spoilerific marketing, the latter of which is by no means a fault of the film itself, the film manages to place the viewer right in the centre of an unnerving predicament, having you jumping, wincing and glued to the screen all the way to the finish line. In other words, it’s a horror pic that makes you a participant, making this a must-see for anyone keen for a gritty, kinetic, and joyously tense time at the movies.