Film Review – Don’t Breathe
Now this is what I’m talking about.
Don’t Breathe (2016) pulls no punches with its horror. Director/cowriter Fede Alvarez doesn’t shy away from putting us right into the thick of the terror. When most horror movies rely on unseen ghouls lurking in the shadows ready to pop out at any given moment, Alvarez (with co-writer Rodo Sayagues) puts the danger right in front of us. We know where it’s coming from, we see its face, but there’s little we can do except sit back and watch everything unfold. This is a perfect example of the Hitchcock method of suspense building. The tension doesn’t lie in the surprise attack, but in the threat we see coming straight at us. It’s manipulative filmmaking at its finest, toying with us at every given second.
Alvarez does a tremendous job of laying down the foundation early on. While there are twists and turns, Alvarez sets the parameters of the narrative right away and rarely deviates from it. A virtuoso shot points toward clues that play major factors later on: a sledge hammer, a locked door, a security key pad, a gun under a bed. It tells us what to expect while simultaneously setting us up for the unexpected. The story is simple: three burglars break into the home of a blind military veteran. Little do they realize that The Blind Man (Stephen Lang) is a stone cold psychopath who knows the ins and outs of his house through feel, sound, and smell. When The Blind Man blocks all the exits, the three burglars find themselves at the mercy of a building they’re unfamiliar with and a resident able and willing to tear them to shreds.
As soon as the three burglars break into the house, every moment acts as a set piece stuffed with nail biting suspense. The premise of having the villain be blind is an ingenious one. Since The Blind Man uses everything except sight to track down his victims, that allows Alvarez to place him in clear view of our protagonists. Some of the most nerve-wracking moments feature a character being stuck in a room with The Blind Man in there with them. Seeing who will make the first mistake is completely engrossing, and it’s a credit to the sound design all throughout. We become focused on the noises just as much as the characters – when a floorboard creaks, or a door slams, or the sound of glass breaking under a foot – we don’t know what sound will trigger the next attack.
Alvarez and Sayagues develop the characters in such a way that allows us to become interested in their stories. It would’ve been very easy to root against the three burglars. If Rocky (Jane Levy), Alex (Dylan Minnette), and Money (Daniel Zovatto) were drawn as common thieves, it would have brought the whole narrative down. It tiptoes that line in some cases. Money is depicted as a thug, whose only defining trait is his greed for fast cash. He is the least interesting character, and his ultimate destiny is easy to decipher. Rocky and Alex are a bit more nuanced though. Alex takes advantage of his father’s security system business to help break into homes. He seems the most level headed and intelligent of the bunch, and we question why he would even consider taking up a life of crime to begin with. That question is answered as we learn more about Rocky. She is the most developed of the three, wanting to escape an irresponsible mother and take her younger sister with her to the sunny beaches of California. The possibility of romance is suggested between Alex and Rocky, but that takes a back seat when things start to go from bad to worse.
There’s a chance that The Blind Man could go down as one of the great horror movie monsters. Stephen Lang delivers one of his best performances as the unpredictable mad man. With his tremendous size, obvious strength, and animalistic tendencies, Lang plays The Blind Man like a prowling lion ready to devour his prey. Unlike many boring villains we’ve seen lately, Alvarez and Sayagues bolster the character with a strong backstory, one that is surprisingly heartbreaking in its own twisted way. Don’t get me wrong though: The Blind Man is one sick individual. There is no mistaking that he has fallen off a mental cliff with no chance of coming back, and some of the things he does to his victims are flat out insane. But it works here. For us to really buy into the idea of an old man being able to overwhelm and outsmart three young people, he has to be dangerous in a way we can’t anticipate, and well, that’s exactly what happens.
Don’t Breathe is breathtaking cinema. It grabs us by the shoulders and plants us right at the edge of our seats, not allowing us to move until the very last frame. I can see potential for this blossoming into a franchise, and whether or not that turns out to be successful is anyone’s guess. In the meantime, let’s celebrate a horror flick that actually delivers on its promise. This was gruesome, thrilling, and perverse, and one of the best films of the year.
Also, be sure to check out our interview with Fede Alvarez from SDCC 2016.