From the creative team of Fede Alvarez and Sam Rami, who brought you Evil Dead (2013), comes Don’t Breathe, a claustrophobic suspense-filled horror-thriller that twists and turns all the way to the credits. Don’t expect a gorefest this time around from the Evil Dead filmmaker; Don’t Breathe skips the overt physical trauma of the previous work to focus on psychological terror; resulting in an emotional gut-punch that will leave your stomach in knots and a strong desire to keep the lights on. Don’t Breathe offers a surprisingly refreshing approach to the horror genre by subverting expectations at every turn and providing a story full of complex three-dimensional characters.
Rocky (Jane Levy), Money (Daniel Zovatto), and Alex (Dylan Minnette) are three Detroit kids who specialize in home invasions. They keep each haul under ten-thousand dollars and never take cash. It keeps the risk – and punishment – low. They move quickly and keep their targets focused on wealthy customers of a home security business Alex’s father works for. When Money gets a tip that a local former blind vet is rumored to be holding six-hundred thousand dollars, their dreams of escape from desolate Detroit seem right at their fingertips. Thinking that a blind man will be an easy mark, the trio break into his home in the middle of the night and are too far in before they realize the Blind Man (Stephan Lang) is not what he appears.
Alvarez uses sound and framing to create sensations of claustrophobia, suspense, and terror. The lack of a soundtrack and keeping the ambient sounds minimal forces the audience to always listen for queues that something is about to happen, which does two things: it places the audience firmly within the experiences of the characters, making us strain for sounds just as they are, and it removes traditional queues which means that a scare can happen any time and come from anywhere. Similarly, Alvarez uses framing to only show the audience what he wants you to see. From the outset, he sets the tone by showing the audience an overview of a neighborhood. Lighting is low, the angle of view is downward, and nothing appears to be on the street, yet the camera slowly moves forward. Very slowly a moving shape takes form and with gradual building dread the figure in the street is both visible and recognizable. Before the audience can really process what this means, the story flashes back and we are introduced to our main characters in the process of breaking into a home. Alvarez makes it clear from the outset that you will only see what he wants you to see and for the remainder of the film, each member of the cast is featured primarily in close-up, intimate shots. Our POV becomes as limited as theirs, increasing audience fear and forcing us to share in the terror each of them feel. This applies as much to Lang’s Blind Man, whose movements become more deliberate, precise, and vicious as the film progresses. Generously, Alvarez provides release from the constant tension by utilizing the multiple characters to shift focus. As each of the home invaders take their individual term evading the Blind Man, the others get a break to gather themselves and determine a new course of action. This gift, however, becomes smaller and smaller throughout the film as Alvarez eventually hits the throttle, never looking back.
None of this would matter, however, it if weren’t for the wonderful job Alvarez and co-writer Rodo Sayagues did of developing deep characterizations for each member of the main cast. Jane Levy’s Rocky resorts to theft as a means of securing a better life for herself and her younger sister. She’s not stealing out of greed, but out of necessity for someone she loves. Many times she’s given chances to get out of the house, but often turns back for the money. Initially it looks like greed until you remember why she’s stealing in the first place – to make a better life for her sister. This makes the continual opportunities she’s presented to escape more and more heartbreaking as she refuses to take them. Dylan Minnette’s Alex is the smartest of the bunch and is presented as the son of a loving father, which sets him apart from both Roxy and Money who seem to come from broken homes. His only motive seems to be a devotion to Roxy, following the theme Alvarez and Sayagues have set of love being a driving force. Daniel Zovatto’s Money seems to be the most superficial, stealing because he can and only being in it for the money; though when it counts, he proves his nobility. Though rare in a horror film, Alvarez and Sayagues impressively allow for Lang’s Blind Man to be as layered as the three home invaders, starting out as the initial victim and then revealing himself as the true alpha predator. Lang’s Blind Man acts like a force of nature moving with laser-focus through his home, yet he’s not just some supernatural force. Like his counterparts, he is driven by love and represents the way that it can get twisted, even in the best of us.
Where most horror films feel by the numbers, Don’t Breathe is a unique theatrical experience. Just when you think things can’t become more intense, Alvarez and Sayagues present new ways to raise the stakes, twisting and challenging expectations the whole way. Though there are a few moments that feel irrational or out of place for a film so smartly executed, they can be chalked up to the horror tropes everyone knows. Don’t Breathe is a surprise well worth your time, horror fan or not.
Final Score: 4.5 out of 5.