THEATRICAL REVIEW – Don’t Breathe (2016)
Directed by: Fede Alvarez
Produced by: Sam Raimi, Robert Tapert, Fede Alvarez
Written by: Fede Alvarez, Rodo Sayagues
Edited by: Eric L. Beason, Louise Ford, Gardner Gould
Cinematography by: Pedro Luque
Music by: Roque Baños
Starring: Jane Levy, Dylan Minnette, Daniel Zovatto, Stephen Lang
Isn’t it nice to see horror movies that succeed both financially and critically? It wasn’t too long ago that the biggest horror movies given wide release were mostly sequels, remakes, and cash-ins on trends. I mean, we’re seeing that still, sure – that’s just part of how the movie industry works in general – but, specifically in regards to the horror genre, it’s not nearly to the degree from back when the Saw flicks were an annual tradition. Don’t Breathe, the latest surprise critical darling, is currently sitting at the top of the box office in its first week and is also maintaining an 87% rating on Rotten Tomatoes – not just a good approval rating for a horror movie, but any movie in general. And while it doesn’t reach the same heights as films like The Babadook and It Follows in terms of vision, style, and execution, I was still incredibly pleased to find that not only were the positive reviews well deserved, my own expectations based on the trailers and word of mouth were exceeded.
The movie’s plot is pretty much as advertised, however. A trio of accomplished young burglars raid the house of a supposedly easy target, a blind man, who is believed to be stashing a large sum of money somewhere inside. What they don’t expect, however, is that the man is more than prepared for just such an occasion, and soon the intruders find themselves in a place where the only means of escape may be death. (Man, I should write the narration for trailers….)
Now, that premise in itself is not necessarily the whole reason why this movie succeeds, but as with another simply-premised horror thriller from earlier this year, Hush, it’s certainly a welcome change of pace from films that feel the need to build up some sort of lore behind the stories. Don’t Breathe certainly provides a lot more thematic background for its lead characters that gives the audience reason to at least be empathetic towards them, despite their misdeeds, but it’s nothing so out of the ordinary that audiences lose the suspension of disbelief at the hands of a movie that’s cramming forced symbolism down their throats. At the heart of both movies is a simple tale of survival and one group of normal people versus a fairly mundane and yet wholly menacing threat.
Don’t Breathe does, however, take an unexpected turn that is only hinted at in the trailers – and I don’t recommend re-watching them if you can’t think of what it is that I’m referring to. I’d forgotten entirely until the moment came. I was grateful for that faulty memory. (That being said, the tiniest hints of SPOILERS follow from this point onward.) At first, this revelation does seem to undermine the novelty of having the movie focus not just on characters who may very well be deserving of their fates at the hands of the movie’s primary threat, but also the movie having an antagonist that was mostly empathetic and justified in defending himself from the leads. There was a period in the film in which I became disappointed with it for ruining that reverse home invasion premise at about the halfway mark, and there is a part of me that still wishes it had instead committed to doing that. This revelation also led to a moment that kind of ruined Stephen Lang’s performance for me up to that point, because he was so much better when he didn’t speak much, and hearing his voice so prominently for the first time in a while, and it being so… typical… was also a disappointment. Luckily, the movie picks up again and becomes an impeccably paced, brutally thrilling chase film that makes excellent use of its limited setting.
And when I say the movie is brutal, I mean it. The violence in this movie isn’t excessive nor gory, as in the filmmakers’ Evil Dead remake, but when it happens, believe me – you will feel the pain, not just observe it. There’s also some seriously disturbing content here that, while effectively elevating the antagonist to a greater threat status than that of the comparatively morally misguided individuals he’s pursuing, it will make audiences seriously uneasy. I didn’t think it was exploitative at all, mind you, but it certainly made me feel more than a little nauseated – but in a way that horror movies like this should. (I also cannot believe the number of parents who brought their little kids to see this movie at my screening. One woman even told her kid to “shush” and “sit still and be quiet” when he kept whimpering he wanted to leave because he was frightened. It was infuriating. Seriously, do not do that to kids!)
As always, none of this would’ve been possible without some effective actors. Here, the MVP is undoubtedly Jane Levy as Rocky, a troubled young woman who comes from a bad background, with Stephen Lang following up in a chilling role as the blind man. In many other, lesser movies, the role of Rocky would’ve been written and performed as more like a manic pixie dream girl whose metamorphosis into a special butterfly was merely stunted by the fist of an abusive father, leading to her wearing black only to match her eyes or whatever. Levy, however, along with the smart script, makes Rocky a believably troubled girl who genuinely believes she’s justified in stealing from people. She’s not an otherwise perfect angel, and the movie makes no excuses for her, but it certainly provides the audience with reasons to pity her and hope for her chance at redemption. Lang – throaty creepy voice aside – is also a fantastically threatening presence as the blind man. Physically imposing, but not unconventionally so, and equally feeling justified in his own decisions and actions against those he believes deserve it, the blind man character is a nearly perfect horror thriller villain in Lang’s hands. Director Fede Alvarez seemingly recognized this, making great use of cinematography by Pedro Luque and using the visual medium of cinema to accentuate the terrifying nature and concept behind the character. The night vision basement chase sequence is one of the more satisfyingly intense moments I’ve seen in a while.
Don’t Breathe is an incredibly well-crafted film with compelling characters and great-to-fantastic performances all around. (Dylan Minette, it should be noted, continues to prove he should have a promising career ahead of him, even now that he’s on his way out of his teenage years.) Despite its brutality and some disturbing content, when the movie’s over, you’ll realize that this was, surprisingly, a highly entertaining film, as well. It may not find itself being mentioned in the same company as often as other critical darlings, but that doesn’t mean it should be discounted either. This is just an all-around solid, welcome, and satisfying film, and fans of the horror genre – and perhaps even those merely dipping their toes into the waters but who also wish to find something more interesting than just supernatural scares and overt, clumsily portrayed thematic content – will almost assuredly find plenty to admire here.
The Viewer’s Commentary Rating: 4 / 5