Don’t Breathe. Don’t Bother.
During its finer moments, ‘Don’t Breathe,’ presents a tight, atmospheric and claustrophobic home-invasion-gone-wrong experience. It also offers a unique twist on the horror genre of recent memory – films like, ‘It Follows’, ‘Under the Skin’, ‘Kill List’, ‘A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night’ and ‘The Babadook’, all have attempted to reinvent the horror category with genuine tension rather than flat out jump scares, and it seems that Director Fede Alvarez is attempting to galvanise the field by bringing the dread into the future whilst respecting the traditions of old.
We’re introduced to our main protagonists, Rocky (Jane Levy), Alex (Daniel Zovatto) and Money (Dylan Minette) and realise quickly that they’re a group that have made some questionable decisions in their lives. They’re young burglars in Detroit, stealing from the rich and giving to…themselves. We’re supposed to empathise with these characters because they’re broke, desperate and in Rocky’s case, looking for that ‘one last score’ to get her daughter out of the surrounding dilapidation to California where, one can assume, she’ll live with surfer dudes and live happily ever after. It’s never actually explained what she’ll do there exactly, but California sounds nice, I guess? And it’s probably a lot sunnier. Yeah, let’s go with that. The morality of Rocky’s predicament is an interesting narrative arc of “Don’t Breathe,” because in theory we shouldn’t be rooting for her to steal money from a blind man, but we do. (This is later ‘rectified’ when the blind guy turns out to have more than money in the basement, but we’ll get to that later.) The men of “Don’t Breathe” are given little defining character traits whatsoever; Money is an archetypal ‘gangsta’ bad boy with the attributes to match: stubborn, a bit of a douche and only interested in money (Geddit? That’s his street name!) and then there’s timid Alex, who’s besotted with Rocky and therefore spends the majority of the film padding after her with puppy dog eyes, evoking the ‘sane voice of reason’ of the group. Alex’s father owns a security company and has passcodes and keys that can get the group past security alarms – Money is told by one of his gangsta fences of an old house in a deserted part of town that is potentially hoarding thousands of dollars. Its owner, a veteran who was blinded in the gulf war (Stephen Lang), won a settlement when a rich girl tragically killed his daughter in a hit-and-run accident. So they plan to break in, get the money and get out. Best laid plans and all that…
Where ‘Don’t Breathe,’ works best is in its atmosphere. When the group start their burglary, the tense-o-meter starts cranking up like an old Victorian wind-up toy; albeit said wind-up toy is sentient and hell-bent on decimating its owner. The scenes inside the house are played out almost in real time, so Alvarez uses every trick in the book to keep the audience engaged with some fresh, ‘oh jeez, I didn’t see that coming,’ misdirection. The film hurtles along like a coked up Orang-utan at feeding time, which makes it so disappointing when the thick brush of logic is smacked into the face of the audience and tarnishes the screen by making the blind veteran a villain. I can understand why this decision was made; so that our initial preconceptions of a group of young people robbing a blind army vet becomes justified, but Lang’s character becomes far more repugnant than we could ever imagine, however it feels out of context. He is a man driven by a weird sense of nihilistic justice that is frustratingly out of place. There is one particular scene (involving a turkey baster) that will divide people into the cultural Marmite meme; for this reviewer the scene in question felt contrived and almost torture porn-ish, which felt like it was betraying everything it had been trying to assemble throughout the last hour.
The fierce, colossal Lang in his undershirt and sweatpants makes for a terrific antagonist, but another misstep in the film is Lang’s voice. It may sound pithy and trivial, but for a film that cleverly uses sound (or lack thereof) to create such tension, it was bewildering to hear Lang sound like Bane’s dad. There is a particular scene of exposition where the blind vet is explaining/justifying his actions in the basement, and for a moment that should have been profound and emotional, the image that was burnt into this reviewer’s retina was Tom Hardy’s character in The Dark Knight Rises. I dare you to watch that scene and not cup your hands in front of your mouth, muttering, ‘Oh, you think darkness is your ally. But you merely adopted the dark; I was born in it.’
Hats off to Cinematographer Pedro Luque, who is able to distil a claustrophobic, maze-like surrounding throughout – when we get to the basement we feel like we’re in The Overlook Maze from Stanley Kubrick’s ‘The Shining,’ but instead of snow-capped hedges we’re groping around a series of shelves and darkness. Similar to David Fincher’s ‘Panic Room,’ the house itself is given an almost gothic characteristic, eerily making it a huge player in the film itself. The battle of wills and wits between Lang and Levy’s characters teases us throughout, and Director Alvarez refrains from using quick cuts and shaky camerawork to discombobulate our senses, and although Don’t Breathe is a good exercise in how a taut, psychological thriller should be, it ultimately stumbles in the last hurdle, seemingly to appease a more gratuitous crowd.
A good concept, executed with professionalism and style to the genre, only marred by a third act that completely undoes everything it has set up previously.