Welcome witches and warlocks,
Today I will be reviewing the horror/thriller DON’T BREATHE by writer/director Fede Alvarez. Since it gives nothing away, I will turn to IMDB for the plot description:
Three friends break into the house of a wealthy blind man, thinking they will get away with the perfect crime. They are wrong.
He senses something is amiss and cautiously begins to explore. His instinct tells him that someone else is roaming the creaking floorboards, empty walls, and impenetrable windows that make up his fortress. He feels his way along the hallway, creeping up on the miscreant who seeks to invade his home. His military training is kicking in and, much like his time in combat, he is going to do anything to defend his turf.
Those in the horror community are probably already well acquainted with the feature due to the pedigree of Fede Alvarez and Sam Raimi who worked on 2013’s EVIL DEAD together. Their work on that film proved to be so popular that it won over longtime fans of the original while making new fans of those already initiated. Given this face, the hype for DON’T BREATHE was obviously very high; so, does it live up?
Let me preface the rest of this review by saying, this is a very different movie than EVIL DEAD. This outing focuses much more on creating a sense of tension rather than putting the emphasis on over the top gore. Therefore, those looking for a spiritual successor to Alvarez and Raimi’s first collaboration might be disappointed while those who are able to set that expectation aside will find a lot to love.
Our opening shot alone sets the perfect tone for the rest of the picture. We slowly zoom in on a figuring moving down an abandoned street until we see that they are dragging what looks to be an unconscious girl by the hair along the pavement. The low rumble of the score combined with the desolate setting immediately creates a sense of unease in the viewer. What makes this such an effective way to start this feature is the fact that we are immediately thrust backwards to well before this scene with the full knowledge that, eventually, this horror is going to play out.
The backgrounds of our trio of robbers are pretty stereotypical so it will feel familiar to anyone who watches any sort of media. While this could make them seem boring, one of the reasons they succeed in holding our interests is that they are fairly morally ambiguous. We get why they are robbing, but that does not make the fact that they are thieves acceptable in any sense of the word. I like the fact that, even when in peril, the lead girl stayed focused upon the money at hand as it added a consistency to the character that tends to fall by the wayside in similar fare. The lead walks the fine line between likable and criminal so well that even if we cannot condone their actions, we still find them likable enough that we want them to survive.
While is is easy to praise Jane Levy and Dylan Minnette for their solid performances, I found Stephen Lang’s portrayal to be absolutely mesmerizing. Near the star of this movie Lang’s character expresses remorse or anger at not being able to control the muscle memory he picked up during his military training. In a way he is pitiable right up until he snaps entirely and gives in to his more violent nature. This change in character occurs without any exposition and relies completely upon the performance to portray the descent into brutality. A third act twist comes across as especially unsettling, given how his character has been up until that point, which sadly take away his ambiguity and paints him wholly as a villain with a cruel streak.
Given Alvarez’s last picture was the gore infused EVIL DEAD, I do feel I have to address the violence in this feature. To be honest, it was nowhere near the violence of his previous outing, which is actually to its credit. This is not a story that requires blood and guts as it is trying to create a certain realism about the evens so keeping the grotesqueness in check was a smart choice. I respected that they never just showed bloodshed for the sake of bloodshed, but instead tried to keep things grounded while at the same time stylizing any violence that was necessary.
Overall this entire film oozed style from the subtly effective score to the gripping cinematography. For the sake of space, I am going to zero in on the camera work as it was truly a wonder to behold. When the kids first enter the blind man’s house we are treated to a long take that follows the trio around the abode while foreshadowing much of what is to come by focusing in on various objects or set pieces. By wordlessly showing off what is to come, they cleverly ratchet up the tension even before things kick into high gear.
After all this talk of mood, characters, acting, violence, and style I feel I must touch briefly on the overall plot of this movie. This first two thirds of this picture focus on establishing the characters, the tense pursuit around the house, and the terrible discovery in the basement. Much of this has been shown off in the trailer so those who have seen that will have some general idea of what to expect. Beyond the aforementioned third act change up, the story is fairly predictable and serves more as a vehicle for the highly stylized chase scene.
It is during these chase sequences that this feature becomes a bit more erratic on the logic front. Most of these inconsistencies stem from the fact that the blind veteran’s senses are constantly being redefined throughout the film. While he one moment can hear a board creak or a person breathe, the next he cannot hear a loud computer keypad beeping. While I liked the sense of tension some of these moments created, if there had been a more logical path taken with his working senses it would have made this a much stronger movie.
All in all, even with the inconsistent movie logic, this is a successfully thrilling feature that ticks nearly every box of the home invasion genre. It is hard not to see this as a darker spiritual successor to the film WAIT UNTIL DARK (1967) as it follows some of the same beats as that movie albeit adding a certain moral ambiguity. Those looking for a tense picture that is high on style should definitely give this a look.