At the end of a dreadful summer season, Don’t Breathe comes as a surprise. The second film from Evil Dead-rebooter Fede Alvarez, Don’t Breathe is an efficient machine of tension. It takes a familiar set-up—home invaders waylaying a supposedly-helpless victim—and flips it on its head. Our heroes are the invaders and our villain is the blind man they’re robbing. The film forces viewers to reorient their sympathy for the characters much as the characters have to reorient their senses when dealing with a blind adversary. It’s a neat horror film that pushes a touch too far into the grotesque in its final act, but still manages to impress formally and viscerally.
The concept is simple: Rocky (Jane Levy), her boyfriend Money (Daniel Zovatto), and her friend Alex (Dylan Minnette) rob houses in Detroit. They target an old blind man (Stephen Lang) living alone on a deserted street, but the blind man turns out to be less helpless than they thought. Chaos ensues within closed quarters. Alvarez makes the most of the simple concept and restricted setting. Instead of the shaky-cam cinematography and “naturalistic” performances of most modern horror films, he opts for sweeping steadicam shots and emotional efficiency. There isn’t much backstory except for some emotional motivation for Rocky. The characters are what they do.
There are familiar parts to Don’t Breathe, but those parts are essential to the film’s impact. Home invasion thrillers are common, but the home invaders are usually the villains of the piece. Right off the bat, Alvarez inverts sympathy. The invaders are the heroes. And he continues to play with expectation and sympathy as more information is revealed about the blind man and the robber’s motivations. The film becomes a little insane near the end—there’s a bit with a turkey baster that needs to be seen to be believed—but the development is swift and carried on by some terrific filmmaking.
Don’t Breathe is a formal triumph. Alvarez’s camera is confident. The geography of the house is clearly established right as the robbers enter, and that familiarity pays dividends down the line. A pitch-black sequence in the basement is the best use of gimmick cinematography I’ve seen in years. As well, like his mentor, Sam Raimi, Alvarez knows how to efficiently use a jumpscare. Instead of bombarding the viewer with sensory overload in an effort to scare, he uses startling images or sounds to trigger the viewer’s panic—such as a dog leaping at a window or a gunshot—which then subsides to calm, forcing the viewer’s guard down. Only then, does he spring the real scare, which is often more calculated and unnerving than the jump.
Don’t Breathe comes deep into a horror renaissance of recent years when directors like Ti West and David Robert Mitchell have played with convention to wonderful effect. It’s not the best film of its lot, but it’s swift and smart and knows how to rattle an audience. It’s a work of genuine filmmaking, which is more than you can say for most genre films of this past summer.
7 out of 10
Don’t Breathe (2016, USA)
Directed by Fede Alvarez; written by Fede Alvarez and Rodo Sayagues; starring Jane Levy, Dylan Minnette, Daniel Zovatto, and Stephen Lang.