Rewind: Review of “Don’t Breathe”

Jane Levy stars in Screen Gems' horror-thriller DON'T BREATHE.

by Michael Henley

Don’t Breathe is a very nasty and highly effective suspense thriller made with supreme skill. After a summer of disappointing big budget epics, here is a low budget chiller that comes as a real jolt—not for its plot secrets (though it has a couple), but for how just perfectly well it follows through on its intentions. It’s designed to do one thing, sure, but it does it with strong craftsmanship and laser-like focus, so it comes down to something real simple: if you don’t want to see something like this, don’t go. If you do want to see something like this, this is pretty much as good as it can be done. Seeing a movie this well-made in the dog days of a lousy summer is like finally getting a chance to take a dip in the pool.

And it’s also a real surprise given its pedigree. It was directed by Fede Alvarez, who made the 2013 remake of The Evil Dead, a movie that—except for the Guinness-book level of onset gore used for it (true fact)—was pretty forgettable. Alvarez has reteamed with his Evil Dead producers (Sam Raimi, Rob Tapert) and that movie’s leading lady, Jane Levy, but he’s upgraded his technique, and the removal of the constraints of a remake seems to have freed Alvarez to play. Now he’s a little more seasoned, a lot better with actors, and far more concerned with overturning our expectations, even when he’s still paying homage to classics, here and there. We see his newfound confidence right from the first shot, a high overhead which shows a bleak, deserted suburb before slowly zooming in to catch a disturbing image.

Levy plays Rocky, a single mom who has resorted to thievery in order to make ends meet living in Detroit (between this and It Follows, the Motor City feels like it’s slowly become the capital for 21st century horror). The two men in Rocky’s gang are Alex (Dylan Minnette), who does it because he loves Rocky, and Money (Daniel Zovatto), who does it because he loves the rush so much he pees on people’s floors when they break in. Rocky, however, has her reasons: she and her daughter can’t get out from under Rocky’s verbally abusive and mean mother, but a big score could help them both run away and start a new life. Enter the big score: a blind ex-Army vet (Stephen Lang) living in an empty, rotted-out suburban neighborhood who is sitting on a $300,000 settlement. Rocky, Alex and Money break in one night, thinking they have successfully sized up the situation in the house and the old man’s abilities to defend himself. On both counts, they turn out to be very very wrong.

Alvarez shows his technical skill in a virtuoso moment designed by he and his cinematographer, Pedro Luque. As the gang, in stocking feet to avoid noise, creep around the first floor of the house as the blind man sleeps, the camera tracks them as they look around the house and criss-cross each other. The camera swoops and glides and turns in a lengthy unbroken take that allows us to make sense of the rooms, their geography , and the props that might later come in handy. By the time the movie kicks into cat-and-mouse mode (as the blind man stalks the three thieves in his own house), we understand the house’s layout about as much as our “heroes” do, although obviously not as much as the blind man, who has some significant tricks up his sleeve.

The camera movie I mentioned is borrowed, to be sure, from David Fincher’s Panic Room, which this movie feels at times like a grottier follow-up to. Of course, Panic Roomwas a home invasion thriller that sided with the homeowners, while this one sides with the home invaders. Not a small difference, mind you. You wouldn’t think this would be a group that could earn our sympathies, exactly. But the movie is canny in the way it deflects our concerns over the premise: Rocky is conscientious but desperate, Alex is lovestruck and a little simple-minded, and the leader, Money (who is fool enough to bring a gun, which Alex berates him for), is tough, aggressive and stupid. This neatly compartmentalizes our misgivings about these three, as Money is a character engineered to absorb most of them. Plus, the more we learn about this blind man, the more we learn that maybe he’s a guy who deserves to be messed with, and what he has in store for them you could argue that no one deserves, criminals or not. A lot of this comes out in the second act during a scary detour to the maze-like, expansive basement (one of the few places where the movie chooses intentional disorientation as a technique, and it works).

The movie is smart in the way it lets its characters operate. We all know the cliché of the person who does something stupid in a horror movie. There’s very little of that here. The characters mainly do intelligent things, and when they do ill-advised things, it’s usually due to lack of better options. The blind man, who could rival Daredevil on his best day in how he uses his senses, is a highly competent killer and knows how to wear down prey. Sometimes he acts, sometime he waits, sometimes he just listens. The sound design is practically a character itself in the way it emphasizes the creaky floorboards, breathing, wheezing and involuntary whimpers and screams that could send the blind man in a person’s direction, especially once these kids are wounded. Could you keep yourself from making any noise for a long time, especially when you’re being pummeled with violence and gruesome sights? This movie makes the very believable case that it’s harder than it sounds.

Oh, and here’s a neat thing: very little dialogue. Usually big movies like these have unnecessary patches of talking, but the very premise here pretty much demands that not to happen, and it’s so much more interesting watching people behave when they can’t verbally account for themselves. A lot of the plot, then, has to play on the faces of the actors, especially Lang (who is an old pro at playing men of wounded valor that has curdled into something more grotesque). Levy is a standout too, in an intense performance that proves, like she did in The Evil Dead, that she’s an up-for-anything star-in-the-making, although rarely are stars so good at surviving projects that depend on them projecting an utter lack of vanity.

Meanwhile, pretty much every square inch of the house gets used, as the kids hide in every corner, avoid obstacles in every hallway, wedge themselves into every crevasse, fall down every hole, etc. It’s like a twisted version of those old Family Circus comics where the kids ran around the house and there was a little dotted line that showed where they’d been and the damage they caused along the way. I love it when a filmmaker can find new economical ways to use the same locations, either on a visual or plot level, and it’s all coordinated with more than a little sick humor. Eventually we leave the movie’s baseline of semi-reality (and good taste) behind, but in a pretty sneaky way. By the time the third act rolls around, we have someone being threatened by…well, I won’t say because (a) it’s a spoiler and (b) you wouldn’t believe me and (c) if you did, you would be repulsed and shocked, saying that the movie has gone too far. And maybe it does, but the movie is so well-orchestrated that it successfully pulls you into the land of “too far” without you even realizing it.

If I have one complaint about Don’t Breathe, it’s that maybe it goes on a little too long, like a roller coaster that doesn’t know when to quit, and just can’t help but throw in one more drop, just for fun. Even if by this point you’re full and completely well wrung-out. At 90 minutes, the movie’s a fine length, but it feels like it wears out its welcome, just a little. Maybe that’s just because it does its job as a thriller almost too well. Regardless, Don’t Breathe is a fine time at the movies, and serves as nice tonic, as we go into the fall, to summer movie bloat, and reminds us that you don’t need hundreds of millions and hard drives full of effects to give us an effective entertainment. There’s a lesson in here. Actually, there’s two. The other is “Don’t rob blind people.”