For decades in cinema, we’ve watched the seemingly secure homes of the innocent intruded by ravenous murderers, most recently in Netflix’s Hush, a film I previously lauded as “one of my favorite horror films of the past few years.” Usually, in films of this ilk, we watch in horror as the homeowner (and their family) is terrorized by a senseless killer. Typically, we’d pray for the well-being of the protagonists, and hope for the destruction of the antagonists. In Don’t Breathe, it’s never as simple as that.
Don’t Breathe, from Evil Dead (2013) director Fede Alvarez and producer Sam Raimi, provides the inverse home invasion flick, and like Hush before it, presents a smart, unique, and contemporary take on the genre. Every home invasion film I’ve ever seen centers on the homeowner, but in Don’t Breathe, we instead follow the intruders. Our deviant protagonists are three teenagers who break into a blind man’s home in hopes of stealing settlement money the man acquired following a car accident that took his daughter’s life. It sounds like a painless — albeit unsettling — job. In the end, however, it turns out to be anything but painless.
Don’t Breathe sees the return of Evil Dead lead Jane Levy. Here she plays Rocky, a teenager who comes from an abusive home. She hopes to attain some cash in order to get herself and her younger sister out of the slums of Detroit. Her dickish boyfriend, Money (Daniel Zovatto), has some intel on a new hit that can secure some easy cash: a lone house within a four-block ruin that belongs to a blind, former military veteran. Rounding out the trio is their way in, Alex (Dylan Minnette), whose access to his father’s security company gadgetry can effortlessly get them past alarm systems.
It takes about 30 minutes for Don’t Breathe to really get started, but as soon as it does, it never lets up for a single scene. Alvarez masterfully shows off the interior of the house in an elongated tracking shot that follows the three characters as they slink around in the quiet, effectively giving the audience a good read on where the characters may end up retreating to, and how they may ultimately escape. Alvarez previously showed promise with his Evil Dead remake, but Don’t Breathe solidifies his vast talent as a filmmaker, with a tight script (co-written by him and Rodo Sayagues) that’s reinforced by plenty of remarkable, well-shot, and expertly choreographed scenes.
Stephen Lang plays “The Blind Man,” who soon becomes aware of his home’s robbers, and it’s immediately apparent that he’s not willing to play nice with them. The film turns into a deadly game of hide-and-seek, with The Blind Man stalking our protagonists as they try to find a way out of his exceedingly locked up home. Although Lang’s character is indeed blind, his sense of hearing is heightened, he’s especially physically able, and the man definitely knows his way around his house. As we explore more rooms, we learn his dark secrets, explaining why he’s so eager to make sure no one leaves alive.
Alvarez treats us to incredibly intense scenes one after another. A particular highlight sees the characters venturing through a pitch-black basement, the intruders stumbling about while The Blind Man listens in on their every move, never too far behind them. The scene is shot in an effective night-vision, black-and-white tint, producing a very distinct, cool look.
This scene may be the ultimate test of the film and falls at the halfway point, but throughout the second and third acts of Don’t Breathe, every scene ends in a collective gasp, or with a sigh of relief. Back and forth these reactions come, with each alternating scene being gasp-inducing, while the scenes in between allow for a second to catch your breath. But that short-lived relief never lasts for long. As a friend of mine elegantly put it, “[the filmmakers] do an amazing job of making us feel safe and then punching us right where it hurts.” While the victims on-screen are being terrorized, I felt that the film was similarly terrorizing its audience, but in the best way possible.
You’re constantly on-edge throughout the film, and I found it hard to breathe myself during some of the more intense moments (which, again, is almost the entire running-time, as the intensity meter’s dial is undoubtedly turned up to 11 and subsequently broken off 30 minutes in, keeping from the return of any sense of calm). These sequences are only heightened by the film’s excellent use of sound — or lack thereof. Many scenes rely on silence as a way to successfully build tension, and the soundtrack is spectacular, emphasizing fittingly stilted, jarring piano strings.
In a year with plenty of remarkable horror films to champion, we’ve been treated to yet another contender in Don’t Breathe. I was afraid going in that the pre-release trailers had shown a little too much of the film, but that’s thankfully not the case. Alvarez has plenty of tricks up his sleeve with this one, including some specific moments you won’t soon be forgetting.
Don’t Breathe serves up an entirely nerve-wracking experience, and it’s one that’s definitely worth breathing through.
— Michael Lane, Blog Editor