A solid second effort from director Fede Álvarez.
Don’t Breathe is director Fede Álvarez’s second film after his brutally gory 2014 remake of Evil Dead. Where Evil Dead lived and breathed in its joyous exploitation of over-the-top violence, Don’t Breathe takes more of a less-is-more approach, trading in violence for suspense, to great success.
So what’s this movie about? Well, Rocky (Jane Levy), Alex (Dylan Minnette), and Money (Daniel Zovatto) are three delinquents from Detroit who spend their time burgling houses for valuables. They are able to do this due to Alex’s dad running a home security company, giving Alex access to the keys of numerous houses. While they are succesful in the actual act of burgling, they make little money from it, due to them only stealing objects instead of cash in hopes of catching a less severe punishment if they are caught. Money tires of having little to show for all their efforts, and eventually learns of a house with $300,000 in cash locked away, with its only resident being a blind man (Stephen Lang). Money thinks this could be their big break, and while Rocky agrees with him, Alex is much more hesitant about proceeding with this job.
Nevertheless, Alex goes along with it, thinking that stealing from a blind man should be a cake walk. It isn’t long until they realize they’ve made a huge mistake, as the blind man is actually an Army veteran, and he manages to lock the three in the house while he attempts to hunt them down. Hijinks ensue.
What makes Don’t Breathe so interesting to watch is the fact that Álvarez never makes it quite clear who you should be rooting for. Initially, I found myself one hundred percent on the side of the blind man, and was ready to enjoy an entire film of Lang kicking the asses of these jabronis. However, the more you learn about the blind man, the creepier and more sinister he becomes. While at the same time, Álvarez attempts to make the burglars somewhat sympathetic. Rocky only wants to make enough money so she can take her sister away from the horrible environment of her trailer trash mother, while Alex doesn’t want to hurt anyone, and is against this robbery from the start. Money simply wants money (not everyone’s a saint alright). These shades of grey that Álvarez paints everyone in lead to me switching allegiances constantly over the course of the film.
Álvarez proves himself to be a master of suspense with Don’t Breathe, playing on viewer expectations by both subverting them and playing it straight in equal measure, giving the whole film a genuine sense of unpredictability. I found myself on the edge of my seat on more than one occasion, gripping the arm rest in anticipation of the next violent act from the blind man.
An aspect of the film that I found quite interesting was its sparse use of dialog and sound. Since the blind man is well, blind, he mainly relies on sound (and smell, somewhat) to track down the assailants in his house. Because of this, Rocky and co. need to remain as quiet as possible, severely limiting their communication options. This silence that is prevalent throughout that helps to emphasize and expound upon the already nerve-wracking suspense that the film delivers.
Since film is light on dialog, Don’t Breathe leans heavily on the nonverbal performances from the actors. Stephen Lang manages to switch from terrifying to sympathetic on a moments notice, while Levy manages to channel pure terror and shock based on facial expressions alone much of the time. Dylan Minnette and Daniel Zovatto give solid performances as well, but they are nothing to write home about.
While the pacing for the first two-thirds of the film is excellent, many of the film’s problems make themselves known in its final act. Álvarez employed the use of fake-out endings multiple times in Evil Dead, and while it felt clever and in the spirit of the original film in that instance, his use of them in Don’t Breathe is more on the side of annoying. By the fourth fake ending, I found myself immensely less invested in the events that were transpiring on-screen, severely under-cutting the drama of the situation. After the threat of an absurd means of sexual violence was subsequently dealt with, I was ready for the film to be over. But the flim just kept on trucking for about 15 minutes too long.
Besides an ending that really drags on, Don’t Breathe marks itself as a well crafted addition to the horror/thriller genre, that serves as a solid sophomore film from Fede Álvarez. While Don’t Breathe doesn’t necessarily surpass Álvarez’s Evil Dead in terms of quality, it manages to be about on par with what I believe to be a modern horror classic. Álvarez is quickly making a name for himself inside the world of horror, and I am much looking forward to his next effort.