A film review by Craig J. Koban September 2, 2016

DON'T BREATHE jjj

2016, R, 88 mins.

 

Dylan Minnette as Alex  /  Jane Levy as Rocky  /  Daniel Zovatto as Money  /  Stephen Lang as The Blind Man

Directed by Fede Alvarez  /  Written by Alvarez and Rodo Sayagues Mendez

Iím not a fan of the slasher or torture porn horror genres at all.  Throwing mindless amounts of gore on screen is relatively easy.  

Now, scaring audience members and eliciting in them sustained feelings of unease and dreadÖthatís a lot harder.  

Thatís why I appreciate the inherent challenge of what it takes to harness psychological horror thrillers more than other horror efforts, and the scantly budgeted $9 million DONíT BREATHE lives and, yes, breathes by its fairly ingenious premise and the manner that it taps into several primal human phobiasÖand all without wallowing (well, for the most part) in dime-a-dozen horror film conventions.  

DONíT BREATHE, when you break it down to its very essence, is a highly effective meat-and-potatoes kind of home invasion thriller with a highly novel twist that ultimately favors nail biting suspense and shocking viewers first and blood spewing carnage second (granted, the film contains copious amounts of that too).  The film was produced by Sam Raimi (no stranger to horror films) and directed by Fede Alvarez, whom previously directed the EVIL DEAD remake a few years ago.  DONíT BREATHE couldnít be anymore of a different turn for Alvarez, seeing that itís a more chillingly effective mood piece that finds fiendishly clever ways of manipulating viewer expectations with its relatively minimalist premise.  Much like BURIED Ė another deeply disturbing thriller about with a simplistic angle Ė DONíT BREATHE works overtime to make us feel as hellishly claustrophobic as its characters, and the film overall ends up overcoming some of its preposterous story mechanizations (more on that in a bit) with its endless aesthetic inventiveness.   

 

 

And yes, there have been countless home invasion thrillers before, but not like this one.  DONíT BREATHE very quickly introduces us a trio of slum-living Detroit teens that are desperately trying to make a living during some economically devastating times.  They are Rocky (Jane Levy), Money (Daniel Zovatto) and Alex (Dylan Minnette), and together they pull off successful home break ins and robberies based on the convenient fact that Alexís dad runs a security company, which leaves him with access to keys and alarm codes (granted, the film never really plausibly relays how Alex is so easily able to get such valuable assets undetected).  The trio of youthful crooks wants to make enough easy dough in order to flee the city and make lives someplace else.  This leads them to their next big potential score: an old Iraqi war vet (Stephen Lang) thatís sitting on nearly half a million dollars that may or may not be located in his outwardly dilapidated home.   

The old man in particular is also blind as a bat. 

To Rocky and Money, this seems like it could be the easiest robbery of their lives, seeing as ďThe Blind ManĒ is...wellÖblind...and would hardly put up a fightÖright?  Alex seems to have more ethical concerns regarding stealing from a disabled man and, in turn, doesnít like the risk of breaking into a home that may not actually contain the money he and his partners crave.  Nevertheless, Alex is pressured into joining them on their nocturnal break and enter of the Blind Manís dwelling, and early on it certainly appears like they face no opposition from him.  Unfortunately, locating the loot becomes rather difficult, not to mention that the noise the teens make wakes up the man, who demonstrates in a savage burst of violence that he is indeed no ordinary blind man.  Heís an incredibly deadly killer that uses his surroundings and his heightened other senses as tools to keep the robbers locked in as he methodically plots to pick them off one after another.   

I donít want to say more about DONíT BREATHE, which would easily dive deep into heavy spoiler territory, other than to say that the film is twisted fun as a morality tale about the inherent perils of crime and the notion of how a younger generation pays no respect whatsoever to their elders.  The way that Alvarez and his teams convey an immediate sense of the houseís geography (through one impeccably smooth and bravura unbroken tracking shot) is crucial to communicating to audiences the particulars of how the robbers and the Blind Man relate to one another from scene to scene.  The startling lethality of the Blind Man is most assuredly terrifying, but his home almost becomes more of a frightening entity in the film for how in continually constricts the movement of Rocky and company and their ability to safely reach the outside world. 

Alvarez also intuitively understands the value of silence in his film, and he uses it at just the right key moments to make us feel as breathlessly uneasy as the Blind Manís pathetic targets.  There are plenty of obligatory jump scares here, to be sure, but the unsettling build up to them is DONíT BREATHEís real coup de grace.  We know that the Blind Man (and his equally vicious and bloodthirsty attack dog) could lunge out of any dark corner at any moment in the film, but Alvarez is as mischievous as Hitchcock in terms of leaving us guessing as to when such attacks will occur.  The filmís most genuinely gut wrenching sequence occurs when the Blind Man traps Rocky and Alex in a cramped and dreary basement and immediately shuts the power down, thus leaving them as visually impaired as he is.  However, he knows the layout of the basement like the back of his hand, whereas Rocky and Alex struggle with each new step to get their bearings and hopefully not knock something over that would tip off their location to their attacker.  Alvarez shoots the entire sequence in a form of monochromatic night vision that displays the victimsí dilated pupiled terror on full display.  Itís as quietly distressing of a scene as any Iíve seen in a film. 

Stephen Lang is an underrated actor that usually doesnít garner much respect, perhaps because he plays so many deranged loose cannons in films.  Yet, heís so systematically great at playing them, and thereís no doubt that his mostly mute, but intimidatingly raw physical performance here is the very stuff of monstrous nightmares.  I also liked Jane Levyís thankless work here as well, seeing as she's dealt a very difficult challenge for an actress in terms of being thrust into a performance corner that forces her to evoke a wholly authentic sense of fearfulness and paralyzing anxiety from a character thatís not really all that fleshed out on paper.  Rocky and her friends are not fully developed personas; they're essentially props for the Blind Manís savage guerrilla attacks throughout the film.  Outside of the fact that Rocky and her pals steal to put food on their tables, the screenplay here doesnít really do much to make us truly sympathize with them or their plight at all. 

DONíT BREATHE has other issues as well, such as some thorny third act developments (which leads to a rather perplexing and logic defying climax).  It's at this time when some dark secrets of the Blind Man are revealed that all but change his motivations from that of a crazy old codger trying to defend his home and into the type of merciless predatory monster that populates the very one-note horror films that DONíT BREATHE Ė through a majority of its running time Ė was trying not to emulate.  For a film like this that spends so much time flipping the bird to stale horror clichťs to eventually fall back on them is ultimately a shame.  Even though the third act totally lost me, thereís no denying the consummate no-nonsense craft and smartly focused manner than Alvarez employs here in delivering a well oiled and sustained engine designed to scare us.  DONíT BREATHE, for the most part, is a brutally effective exercise in maliciously tormenting us.  The film also contains a highly valuable life lesson for all potential career youth crooks out there: 

Donít break into a blind manís home, especially if that blind man is Stephen Lang.  

LikeÖever. 

 

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