Director: Fede Alvarez
Runtime: 84 minutes
The title of Fede Alvarez’s Don’t Breathe is a command, one heeded by the two protagonists of this horror thriller. Yet it also doubles as a challenge to the audience. Fair enough, Mr. Alvarez. The film is 84 minutes, but feels much longer. And that’s not because it drags. Quite the contrary. It’s because once the plot kicks into gear, you’ll spend so much time holding your breath and clenching your armrests that you’ll feel like the two leads: trapped in a nightmare that goes on and on, seemingly without end. That may be bad news for the characters, but it’s something worth celebrating for viewers looking for extended sequences of knuckle-whitening tension.
Alvarez made a splash a few years ago when he remade Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead. Though Don’t Breathe has its share of R-rated violence, it’s hardly covering similar ground or style. There’s no campy, tongue-in-cheek excess here (well, relatively speaking). Don’t Breathe may not reach the controlled, art-film highs of The Babadook, It Follows, or The Witch, it passes with flying colors as a tightly wound nerve-shredder.
Like It Follows, Alvarez’s film takes place in the ruins of modern-day Detroit. Many homes are abandoned, and those that aren’t don’t seem terribly inviting (or clean). The post financial collapse gloom that swamped the Motor City is at the root of why three young adults have turned to robbery to finance their eventual getaway to the West Coast. Rocky (Suburgatory’s Jane Levy), wants to take her little sister away from her trailer trash mother and her sleazy live-in boyfriend. Less-than-stellar boyfriend Money (Daniel Zovatto) is ready to join her. And, reluctantly, so is Alex (Prisoners’ Dylan Minnette), in part because he clearly has deeper feelings for Rocky.
And so our three young malcontents decide to make their last heist the robbery of a reclusive Gulf War veteran (Avatar‘s Stephen Lang) rumored to be sitting on a $300K settlement from the death of his daughter. Two details only make the mark more appealing: every other house on his block is empty, and he’s blind. Sure, his giant dog is a bit of a terror, but nothing could possibly get too out of- oh OK you know it does, otherwise there isn’t a movie. The break-in gets off to a smooth start (windows stealthily broken, alarm system disabled)…and then the Blind Man walks in on them mid-ransack. The uncomfortable silence that follows is just the tip of the proverbial iceberg. Imagine the climactic showdown of The Silence of the Lambs (Buffalo Bill stalking Clarice in the dark, aided by night vision) stretched to feature-length, and you get the idea.
Victims revealing themselves as predators is hardly new territory, but Alvarez dives into his set up so smoothly that the standard horror tropes barely register. Making the most of the fantastic set-up, Alvarez and cinematographer Pedro Luque nimbly dart around the decrepit homestead, ensuring that every footstep and every creaky floorboard registers as a potential death sentence. Roque Banos’ score ratchets up the tension without overwhelming the impeccable sound work, sustaining an undercurrent of dread throughout each development. I spent most of Don’t Breathe like Rocky at the outset: curled up in a ball, terrified to make a sound.
Performances of high caliber aren’t required in this situation, though the cast come across well. Levy makes a spunky heroine (think Emma Stone with a more sardonic edge), and Minnette is grounded and sympathetic. Lang, outfitted with some milky white contact lenses, is compelling even when fast asleep. He gives the Blind Man the physicality of a wounded wolf: raw, unpredictable, and in possession of frighteningly quick (and brutal) reflexes.
The work from all departments is so solid (and in cases, truly exemplary), and Alvarez doesn’t drop the ball when steering the plot through its final passages. There are a few twists (one more surprising than the other), and a glaze of psychological depth painted on to juuuuuussst barely elevate this thing above “people scream and die” horror shenanigans. But given its nastier surprises and R-rated funhouse structure, what really seals the deal for Don’t Breathe is that it never strains to be something “important.” Its a magnificently twisty ride, perfectly content to leave you exhilarated, exhausted, and begging for more. That is, after you take a few hours to get the knots out of your insides.