Don’t Breathe (2016)
Directed by Fede Alvarez
Written by Fede Alvarez and Rodo Sayagues
Starring Jane Levy, Dylan Minnette, Daniel Zovatto, and Stephen Lang
1 hr 28 mins
Looking at the history of horror films tells you a lot about what we were really afraid of during a given era. In the 50s for example it was nuclear annihilation. In the 70s and 80s it was the graphic real-world violence TV news was reminding us existed. Films from the 2000s revealed an especially potent paranoia about the mass spread of deadly disease. Now we might be seeing a new trend of filmic fear: economic collapse. Recent films like Only Lovers Left Alive, Lost River, and now Don’t Breathe have used the location of Detroit to depict the horror of urban decay and desperation.
The three young protagonists of Don’t Breathe–Rocky, Alex, and Money–make their petty cash by robbing people’s homes. They’ve found a new house to hit that may solve their problems forever and finally get them out of Detroit. In a mostly abandoned part of town a blind war vet lives alone, accompanied only by his dog and a huge hidden stash of cash. It’s the easiest job they’ll ever do. But the helpless old man isn’t quite so helpless.
Easily the strongest aspect of Don’t Breathe is its suspense. The concept of our (anti)heroes trapped in a house with a blind badass makes for some very palpable tension. What’s refreshing about the blind gimmick (though there’s definitely a debt to Wait Until Dark) is that it forces the film to be quiet. Nothing is less tense or less scary than the constant sensory blast that is, well, most wide release horror movies, unfortunately. Fede Alvarez takes his time with this one. Right from the opening super-wide shot that slowly locks in on the Blind Man hobbling through the street, you know the kind of pace you’re getting. You can pry my slower-paced thrillers from my cold dead hands. Give me static wide shots, give me slow dollies, give me an expertly blocked long take, give me a sound design that knows when to use silence. Fact: a strong steady build-up WILL make for a more intense payoff when the shit goes down. That’s definitely the case here. The scenes when our protagonists have to remain perfectly still and breathless as the Blind Man wanders inches in front of them do a great job of building up the audience’s defenses. That way when the movie escalates, your defenses fall so much harder than they would in a less methodically directed film.
And that’s what Fede Alvarez is here: methodical. When his surprisingly not horrendous Evil Dead remake came out in 2013 (also starring Jane Levy), one of the widest objects of praise was his direction. The guy is simply a good craftsman. He’s economical, patient, restrained when he needs to be, and crazy when he needs to be. Considering Evil Dead was pretty much a nonstop crazy sensory gore-blast, it’s nice to see him grow here. He should definitely be on your list of directors to keep an eye on.
You don’t usually go into a horror thriller anticipating a focus on compelling or sympathetic characters. Actually it’s usually kind of the point to give you the opposite, a shallow ploy to make the audience WANT to see bloodshed. That may work for Leprechaun 4: In Space, but not for something like Don’t Breathe, which actually has something to say. Quality actors are scarce if the script has nothing substantial for them to chew on. But Alvarez and Sayagues weave in some sympathy for our trio. They each have tangible goals, so the actors are able to create characters instead of props. Detroit is sort of a character here too, and our protagonists’ relationships with it are fractured to say the least. (No, the city doesn’t get a great wrap here.) Their backstories may be simplistic and trite, but they’re definitely understandable. You get why the gang wants to get out of dodge, and as a result, you DON’T want bloodshed once they get to the house. This is especially impressive considering they’re technically the bad guys in this situation. We should be on the Blind Man’s side, a lonely veteran blinded in battle who’s reeling from the loss of a loved one. But you can’t wait for Rocky and the gang to get that cash and run. And speaking of running, once the action kicks up, the characters actually aren’t total idiots. Thankfully there’s a new trend in horror to make the characters at least a little bit resourceful (see: Hush). It’s simply more interesting to watch characters work clever ways to outsmart the bad guy rather than just run and hide and run some more and trip profusely.
My issues with Don’t Breathe are unfortunately in the script. It’s not just the somewhat easy please-feel-bad-for-them character introductions. Or certain gaps in film logic regarding certain impossible situations. For the first two acts the film keeps its identity as a very solid contained thriller based in strongly executed suspense. But when we get into the more plotty third act, the narrative takes an unnecessary detour and we also get some heavy-handed dialogue about morality that rubbed me the wrong way. (I can’t say any more here without getting into spoilers. Feel free to engage me in the comments with spoiler tags if you want to discuss it, because there’s a conversation to be had.)
Just last week some friends and I were talking about how there’s not much representation of urban settings in horror. Specifically how there’s a lot of material to be mined there in interesting ways. In horror it’s usually that in the woods or in the isolated country estate or sometimes in space no one can hear you scream. But in Don’t Breathe, you’re stuck in a very rough part of town where the surrounding houses are abandoned and the cops don’t even bother to patrol. This film as well as the others in the unofficial Detroit trilogy mentioned above examine desperate people living in a concrete hell, where sometimes YOU have to become the bad guy in order to just get by. To me that’s a scarier thought than a demon-possessed kid. There’s a discussion to be had about whether portraying this in horror movies is constructive to the problem or not. But maybe more films like this can help us process these harsh realities. And like the atom bomb monster movies of the 50s, help future generations understand what we’re afraid of right now.