“If we do this right, we never have to do it again.”
We start at the end. Rocky (Jane Levy) is being dragged down a desolate Detroit street by her hair, bloodied and bruised. It’s the only nonlinear piece of the narrative, and it’s a choice meant to immediately establish the film’s tone. Like Rocky, we’re helpless in our viewing experience, writhing and gasping. The shot is effective. And so we’re left to wonder just how we get to that point in what proves to be an up and down affair. Don’t Breathe is pastiche, borrowing from other – typically better overall films – and combining elements in a way that feels unique as well as noticeably refurbished. The movie may go too far or do too much, but when it comes to the scares it merits an A for effort.
Rocky’s part of a three-man home invasion crew. They steal and pawn expensive goods, always less than 10 grand worth, never straight cash. Her boyfriend Money (Daniel Zovatto) provides intel on jobs while Alex (Dylan Minnette) plays keymaster, getting access by targeting homes covered through his father’s home security company. Rocky and Money want to leave Detroit behind for a life in California. Alex tags along, sorta because he likes Rocky, sorta for no reason either. The character needed a stronger pivot to jump in on the action. Nevertheless, the haphazard team finds their jackpot: an old shut-in (Stephen Lang) sitting on hundreds of thousands in cold hard cash. Rumor has it the money’s from a vehicular manslaughter settlement. The victim was his daughter. And the icing on the cake? He’s a blind Gulf War veteran. Problem is he’s more than capable of holding his own against these small time crooks.
Once inside, you can kind of predict how things are going to go. I mean, with a wise-ass character named Money, it’s pretty obvious he won’t be overstaying his welcome. That leaves Rocky and Alex playing a game of cat and mouse, carefully tiptoeing the creaky floors and silencing their fears. We even see some subtle shots from an individual’s perspective, a tactic that forcibly puts us into the moment and makes us feel what they’re feeling. Director Fede Alvarez shoots some marvelous long takes (or at least fakes them seamlessly), utilizing cranes and steadicams to an impressively immersive effect. Mixing elements from Panic Room and a big reveal a-la The Secret in Their Eyes, the tension in Don’t Breathe looks good, but is interchanged for gross-out extremes in the final act.
Alvarez has these types of movies down pat. However, when it comes to functioning as a storyteller, he’s yet to develop the comedic touch often associated with horror or the control to not eviscerate the characters’ sense of humanity. That works better here than in his previous outings though, especially considering that upon multiple revelations, we’re left unsure who to actually root for. The Blind Man may be a depraved sociopath – which undoubtedly is worse than these kids – but they aren’t angels either. So which side do you choose? Don’t Breathe could have been an all-time scare fest had it been more centric, muddling the lines between right and wrong, innocent and guilty. Thankfully it still delivers the clammy hand goods. Prepare yourself before going in, because for a long stretch this one’s about as intense as they come.
“You understand nothing.”
Rating: 3.5 out of 5