"Don't Breathe" (2016) - Rated R / Runtime: 88 minutes
Directed by Fede Alvarez
Review by: JJ Mortimer
A dirty, competent thriller that doesn't necessarily present anything new to the genre, Don't Breathe does, however, give enough tension, jumps, and twists to keep the ticker going despite not allowing any sympathy towards a group of characters who are all really shitty people.
Don't Breathe is the second film this year (after 10 Cloverfield Lane) that attempts to subvert the "captivity" genre by twisting its characters in such a way as to take the expected motions of storytelling in this field of thriller filmmaking and turn them on their head. What we are left with are situations that easily could have gone the direction of cliche, but in turn give us something slightly new. Where 10 Cloverfield Lane was focused more on the Shyamalan-esque denouement, director Fede Alvarez's Don't Breathe gives us the major twist less than halfway through, allowing the film to marvel in the contortion of its expected narrative. And therein also lies the potential problem.
From the beginning we are introduced to three characters that are terrible people, burglars utilizing a parent's security profession to gain access to codes, addresses, wealth, etc., only to find that one particular client, a blind man (marvelously played by a buffed-out Stephen Lang) living in the decrepit outskirts of town, has recently secured a large sum of money for the accidental death of his daughter in an automotive accident. The three young crooks decide to raid the man's house while he sleeps, only to find that the man, an Iraq war veteran, is not who he seems.
The moment we learn all of their motivations and the secrets behind Lang's The Blind Man, I found myself not liking any of the characters. Nobody is a good guy here, even Rocky (played by Jane Levy, the star of Fede Alvarez's 2013 remake of Evil Dead) who, for the most part, is the only one given a relateable moment as we see her early on with her abusive family and her motherly instinct toward who I assume is her very young sister. Outside of that, we have her douchebag boyfriend rightfully named Money (need I say more) and a third wheel named Alex who gives the broken lovebird couple his father's security access codes because of his not-so-secret love of Rocky.
I wanted The Blind Man to shoot them all and feed their bodies to his Rottweiler. And knowing the major secret of the film, I wanted him to die as well. But, less than I wanted the three burglars to die.
For a strong story for audiences to become engaged in, you need characters that you can relate to, or have motivations that you understand or actions that make sense. In this film, since every character is just dirty and whose backstories lack any sympathetic connection to the audience, the film becomes "observational," like watching animals on the Discovery Channel. You don't relate to the lion or the gazelle, but you can think, "Ew, that's gross" when the lion eats the gazelle's gawdamn guts. Never once do you put yourself in the hooves of the gazelle and relate to his personal dire situation, but rather react appropriately to the discomfort of the moment.
That's Don't Breathe in a nutshell - a film that offers only fleeting moments of situational sympathy until you realize that the overall narrative was completely avoidable and the characters are all assholes. I ended up excited for the things happening around/to certain characters for the sheer audacity of its depraved spectacle.
Don't Breathe does capture the grimy nature of its environment really well, making you believe that, on a surface level, the house is owned and operated by a blind man. Though I did find it a little hard to believe a lot of the locations, "traps," and environmental configurations could have been created by the hands of a blind man, one could argue that he didn't always live alone. But then again, would anyone believe that a blind man's daughter would help him build a particular "room" that becomes revealed in the middle of the film? I think not.
Fede Alvarez and producer Sam Raimi show a little more restraint in this film than they did in the Evil Dead remake, yet happily they don't shy away from the disturbing moment or two (one of the first films to make me truly hate and despise a turkey baster in TWO haunting moments that will stick with me for many days). The film has many twists and turns in the final act that didn't seem overbearing to me, but the film could have ended on either one of them and I would have been fine. I didn't need to see the newscast aftermath of the situation, because the hole that was left open is no more filled due to any of the extra scenes we see just before and including the final moments of the film.
The movie utilizes sound design and silence very well - a true highlight to its production. There is a particular scene that appeared inspired by the "Clarice Starling in the dark with Wild Bill" scene from Silence of the Lambs, and I actually would have enjoyed it had the majority of the second act took place in that environment. The scene needed to go on longer because it was so effective as a suspenseful setup with characters out of their element in the comfort zone of their "captor" - again, extending the "situational sympathy" for the characters AND for the audience by placing people in an environment that we can relate to. Don't Breathe, unfortunately, escapes this scenario too quickly for it to be an effectively-stylish and extended set piece.
While I know a lot of my thoughts here sound relatively negative, I actually thought Don't Breathe was a "good" movie. It falls into the category of "one-off" movies, where after viewing it I expect to have no intention of ever seeing it again. The film has good moments, even though I felt that it might have been a little more successful had one of the main characters been more reluctantly pulled into the situation (the Alex character comes close, but his essential betrayal of his father's trust makes him the most culpable to their demise), or had The Blind Man been more sympathetic and drew the audience to his side (something the 2011 film You're Next did surprisingly well with taking a horror film cliche and literally fighting back against it). Don't Breathe is suspenseful, and if you love twisty endings then you are in for a ten-minute treat towards the end.
Come to the film for the situational thrills that get the ticker going; stay for the visual depravity, including one shot involving what can only be described as an "errant pubic hair."