Don’t Breathe (2016)
Alex (Dylan Minnette), Rocky (Jane Levy), and “Money” (Daniel Zovatto) are a team of burglars that use security codes to break into homes. They steal materials under $10,000 to keep them below larger charges. The trio hear about a visually impaired Gulf War vet (Stephen Lang) and his thousands of dollars he keeps inside his home. The naive burglars break into his home and sneakily search for his stashed cash, but the Blind Man (that’s how he’s credited) is a far more formidable victim than they ever could have imagined, and he’s keeping his own secrets that may be worth killing for.
The suspense in Don’t Breathe is deliciously developed and tautly executed, taking a premise that sounds silly on paper and wringing every juicy suspenseful morsel out of it. The crux of this movie is dramatic irony wherein the audience knows more than the characters, and once the Blind Man is activated, so to speak, it becomes an intense game of hide and seek with the audience in on the game. Director Fede Alvarez (Evil Dead) and company have established the layout and geography of the game space, the various rooms and hallways and hiding places, and we spend significant time in every location. A haven one minute might be endangered the next, and the way out or at least a momentary escape from immediate danger might be upstairs or downstairs, or in the walls. An essential part of effective suspense is fearing what happens to your characters, and Don’t Breathe achieves this often with clever setups. There’s one scene where a character falls out a window and lands unconscious on a skylight. The glass begins to crack underneath his weight, and then we see the Blind Man in the room below, anxiously looking for his target. Then there’s also the Blind Man’s attack dog, which you forget about and then pops back up, providing a new threat that changes the dynamics of the moment. The suspense sequences change up so frequently that there’s always something new going on every few minutes. The movie’s attention even seems to alternate between Rocky and Alex and their personal obstacles when separated. The technical merits are present without being overly flashy and self-indulgent. An opening tracking shot inside the house nicely establishes the general layout of the space. Alvarez doesn’t rush his suspense set pieces either, showcasing a wonderfully natural feel for teasing out the tension to make his audience squirm in their seats. With the variety of the suspense set pieces, their clever development, the clear understanding of the geography and stakes, and a swift pacing that doesn’t allow the audience to catch its own breath, Don’t Breathe is a small-scale case study in exactly how to maximize your premise for the most entertainment.
Don’t Breathe packs a punch and this is aided by how streamlined and clean the narrative proves to be, whittling down all unnecessary plot strands. I hated the Money character. He brought nothing to the burglary team besides perhaps some muscle (and a firearm), but I was worried that the movie was going to drag out his inevitable demise. Clearly Rocky and Alex were going to be the main participants and that meant that Money was the most expendable, and given the small number of characters, I worried he wouldn’t be given his merciful end until long into the movie. Well Alvarez must have heard my worry because Money is killed very early on, sparing the audience from dragging out the inevitable. I was appreciative but it also raised the stakes with the two remaining characters because now nobody was obviously next in line for death. A dead Money actually proves more useful than a living Money for the characters. I also appreciated that the movie didn’t dawdle when it came to setting up its trio of burglars and their goals. They’re breaking into the Blind Man’s house at about the 15-minute mark. There’s also no concerted effort at layering in larger social commentary. The economically depressed Detroit setting works to communicate the desperation of the characters, their desire to escape their trappings, and it also provides a tidy explanation for why the Blind Man can drag an unconscious girl by her hair down the middle of the road without alarm (it’s the opening image, so chill spoiler-phobes). This is not a movie that has larger things to say about The Way We Live Now, and to pretend otherwise would be a waste of valuable time. Also, having three white characters serve as the social commentary for Detroit’s ailments would seem rather tone deaf and ill advised.
I think if the Blind Man had been a complete innocent that the movie would have been even more interesting as it forces the audience to test its loyalties and choose sides. As my friend Ben Bailey said upon leaving the theater, once they introduce a third act twist involving the Blind Man’s true goal, he ceased having any sympathy and “just needed to die.” I’ll concur mostly, but man I fell out of favor with our trio of young burglars and the best way I can explain is by making an analogy to the Howie Mandel prime time game show, Deal or No Deal. Contestants would randomly choose briefcases hoping that they contained low amounts of money, furthering the odds that their briefcase would contain a larger and joyous amount. It’s really just a game of odds and averages. It’s mildly fun but with every contestant there was a breaking point for me, a point where they really should have cashed out but instead chose to go forward against unfavorable odds. Once a contestant crossed this imagery point of no return in my mind I was rooting for their downfall (probably to just confirm that I was right all along). Horror movies are the same, and once the main characters make too many stupid decisions, then my sympathies generally gravitate elsewhere. With Don’t Breathe, the young characters have multiple opportunities to escape the house but make too many bad choices. They want to keep the stolen money above their own lives, and after the third missed chance I felt my loyalties wavering. Their first mistake was when they were casing the man’s house in broad daylight and see him walking his dog. Hello, here’s a golden opportunity to break into the home where you know he and his pooch will be absent. Why wait when they’re both back at home and needing to be dealt with? If the Blind Man had been an innocent, or even if they had simply omitted the insidious third act twist, I would have been rooting for this visually impaired war veteran to smite these punk-nosed kids but good.
Earlier this year Netflix debuted Hush, a home invasion thriller featuring a deaf protagonist. Now we have Don’t Breathe with a blind man trying to thwart home invaders. Let’s continue this trend: Don’t Taste, about a man that has to flick his tongue out to sense his hiding home invaders, or Don’t Smell, a pulse-pounding race-the-clock thriller where a scent-disabled man must match wits with attackers while his home, unbeknownst to him, fills up with carbon monoxide. It’s an easy punch line but credit Don’t Breathe for taking its potentially silly premise and treating it with deadly seriousness while still knowing how to have fun with its audience. There are several moments designed to get an audience to jolt or groan, and it all contributes to a skillful, above average experience at the movies that wears down your nerves. The film is terrifically tense, well developed, well paced, and not too stupid, veering in new directions and upping the ante with new twists to amplify the stakes. If you’re looking for a solid way to close out was has been an otherwise mediocre summer movie season, give Don’t Breathe a chance, sit back, and try to keep up with the fun.
Nate’s Grade: B+