New Review: Don't Breathe (2016)

Director: Fede Alvarez
Cast: Jane Levy, Stephen Lang, Daniel Zovatto, Dylan Minnette, Emma Bercovici, Franciska Torocsik

For the first forty-five minutes or so, Don’t Breathe held me so tightly within its death grip that I didn’t have time to really think about or be bothered by the myriad of holes in the plot. The holes are certainly there, but the film is so absorbing, so suspenseful, and so skillfully directed by Fede Alvarez (who has certainly come a long way since his awful debut feature Evil Dead) that not only did I not care about them, but I was ready to write this film as one of this year’s best thrillers. I mean, the first half of this movie is just great.

But then something happens about an hour or so into the movie. There is a twist involving the antagonist here that leads to a scene that’s so over-the-top and so disgusting that it actually made me more than a little queasy. I mean, it’s just not so easy to forgive a movie that uses something as despicable as an attempted sexual assault as a plot device, especially when it’s employed as tastelessly and ridiculously as it is here. I'll give points for originality, though: this is perhaps the first movie that I’ve seen where a man is made to ingest some of his own semen (no, I’m not kidding).

The plot here is as simple and straightforward as you can get. Three Detroit-based young adults have been breaking into rich people’s homes and stealing their goods in hopes of making enough money to escape their dead-end lives. There’s Rocky (Jane Levy), who grew up with an insanely abusive mother and needs the money so she and her kid sister can get as far away from her as possible. There’s Money (Daniel Zovatto), Rocky’s boyfriend and the least sympathetic one of the group. Then, there’s Alex (Dylan Minnette), who has a serious crush on Rocky and whose father manages a home security company.

My reaction to much of the movie!
My reaction to much of the movie!

Alex uses his father’s list of wealthy clients as targets for their robbery spree. He has the keys, so there shouldn’t be much evidence of a breaking & entering (That is, until Money starts smashing stuff and peeing at the scene of the crime). He’s very hesitant about helping them out, and when Money approaches with the idea of robbing a blind Gulf War vet (Stephen Lang), who came into a large sum of settlement money after his daughter was run over by a careless driver, he wants nothing to do with it. But Rocky implores him to help so she and her little sister can get away from their abusive mom. After all, the guy’s blind, so he should be their easiest target yet, right?

Nope! The thieves break into the house without any problem (he’s the only guy who lives on the street), and Alvarez follows the thieves and sets-up the geography of the house in seamless tracking shots. Money tries to keep the blind man knocked out by releasing a gas in his room, but as soon as he pulls out a gun to shoot off a lock to the basement (where they believe the money to be kept), the blind guy wakes up and almost immediately turns the tables on the thieves. He bumps off Money first (no spoiler there, since that’s revealed in the trailer) thinking him to be the only thief in the house, but it isn’t too long before the blind man realizes that he had others with him.

From there, the movie follows Alex and Rocky as they attempt to escape the blind man’s house. This is no easy task. Nearly all the windows have bars on them, and all the doors have at least three to four padlocks on them. What makes it all so engaging is the way the filmmakers keep shifting our loyalties around. While Rocky has good reasons for wanting that money, she and her friends are breaking into the blind man’s home. Money did point a gun at him. Legally, they have no right to be in that house in the first place. Of course, the blind man himself has a few skeletons in his closet as well, and some of what we learn we can at least understand, but not condone.

With his last movie, Alvarez showed that he knows how to work with a camera, and along with cinematographer Pedro Luque, he creates one of the most visually stunning thrillers of the year. The movie grabs you right from the opening shot, which begins with an aerial shot of the blind man dragging a body down a deserted road. The angle is so high that I, at first, thought the shot was achieved via a helicopter, but then the camera goes down, down, down, and down some more, until it’s there on the street with the blind man and his victim. It’s a fantastic shot.

In this situation, that's really not a bad hiding spot!
In this situation, that's really not a bad hiding spot!

The performances are also very strong. Jane Levy was the best thing about 2013’s Evil Dead, and here she turns in another stellar and committed performance. Minnette is likable as the sympathetic Alex, while Zovatto makes the most out of his otherwise brief and underwritten role. The best performance is, of course, turned in by Stephen Lang, who makes the blind man simultaneously fearsome and pitiful (when the kids break in, he’s fallen asleep to a video of his daughter when she was a little girl). He’s not just a one-note horror movie villain. Lang brings many layers to the role, creating a character who is both fascinating and repulsive.

There are ingredients here for a truly terrific thriller, but then comes the aforementioned vile scene involving the attempted sexual assault, and the movie starts to lose some of its power. It also concludes with a news broadcast that leaves a couple of pretty big holes in the plot, like how the police managed to miss a couple of pretty damning pieces of evidence in the blind man’s house which would prove that he’s not as innocent as he would appear.

Casting those faults aside, Don’t Breathe is a good movie. It’s well-acted, very well-made, and at times, almost painfully suspenseful. This is especially true of the scene when our heroes find themselves in the basement after the blind man has shut off all the lights. Can you imagine being in the dark with a homicidal blind guy chasing after you? Down there in the blackness, you’re helpless. Down there, you’re in a world that he knows all too well.

Rated R for terror, violence, blood, profanity, disturbing content

Final Grade: *** (out of ****)

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