Don't Breathe December 10, 2016
Fede Alvarez’s claustrophobic Don’t Breathe smartly plays with home invasion thriller tropes and unexpectedly subverts them just as the goings start to get rough. What happens when your said home invaders near instantaneously go from sinful predators to viciously hunted slabs of meat? A prolonged game of cat-and-mouse wherein the film’s title proves to both be a mood setter and a command (both to us and its misguided antiheroes), it’s the sort of simplistic thriller of the Wait Until Dark (1967) name brand, only the stakes are higher and a morally sound person is nowhere in sight.
In Don’t Breathe, Jane Levy (the fresh-faced lead of underrated ABC sitcom Suburgatory (2011-2014) and the breakout focus of Alvarez’s own Evil Dead remake) is Rocky, a Detroit errant making a living by robbing the homes of the bourgeoisie with a couple young thugs who carry the scent of criminal credibility about as conclusively as the Three’s Company cast covered in tats. But that’s maybe only because they’re pretty, or because Rocky’s clearly a little girl lost, because unconvincing sidekick Alex (Dylan Minnette) obviously would rather be anywhere else, or because ringleader Money (Daniel Zovatto) has all the swagger of James Franco in Spring Breakers (2013).
But all wear financial desperation on their sleeves, and that’s why the downtrodden home of blind, senile army veteran Norman Nordstrom (Stephen Lang) appeals to them. Said to have a safe carrying about $300,000 in cash, the house very well could be the last humble abode they ever target: finally will Rocky be able to give her and her sister a better life in the California she dreams of, and finally will Alex and Money be able to rise from their current low-level statuses and possibly even make something of themselves.
But alas karma is never much in a good mood when her targets of choice are a gaggle of punks with a weakness for breaking and entering, and so fate unsurprisingly proves to be monstrous when Norman turns out to be a behemoth of self-defense, killing Money almost instantly and uncompromisingly hunting down Rocky and Alex like his very own Count Zaroff. His senses extra tingly with his sight gone, one false step or one breath too piercing could spell out an equally painful death for both of them. How they manage to get themselves out of their bitch of a situation, though, isn’t too obvious; one can’t always be as victorious as Clarice Starling when trying not to get brutally murdered in the pitch black.
Standing at a taut eighty-eight minutes, Don’t Breathe is plenty tense and plenty twisty — just when the well of methods of survival seem to run dry, and just as Lang’s memorable antagonist can’t seem to get any more terrifying, co-writer and director Alvarez’s prepped to pull another cinematic rabbit out of his grimy top hat. The movie only gets better the more sinister its villain becomes, the more its main ensemble develops. It seems a perfect half to make a double feature with this year’s similarly innovative Lights Out, but where the latter is more effective exercise than unfading diversion, Don’t Breathe is masterfully chilling and maybe even parasitic in the way it so ceaselessly toys with us.
Alvarez has assembled a gut-punch of a thriller snug in all the right places, his cast as physically courageous as he is artistically kinetic. Perhaps its ending is slightly more saccharine than a film as ferocious as this one needs. But with so much of its suspense so seamlessly mounted, one can’t much belittle it for trying to characterize at least one glimmer of hope within its disabused walls. B+