Don’t Breathe. 2016. Directed by Fede Alvarez. Screenplay by Alvarez & Rodo Sayagues.
Starring Jane Levy, Stephen Lang, Dylan Minnette, Daniel Zovatto, & Emma Bercovici.
Screen Gems/Stage 6 Films/Ghost House Pictures.
Rated R. 88 minutes.
Fede Alvarez did a bang up job with the Evil Dead remake. Not only did he and co-writer Rodo Sayagues come on like a couple madmen upping the bloody horror, they also took the story and made it their own with a twist on the original. Coming into Don’t Breathe, I knew that with Alvarez at the helm and Sayagues in the seat again alongside him writing once more, chances are this film would be exciting.
And they did not disappoint. For most of the runtime this is a movie totally reliant, for good reason, on suspense. There’s an inarguable tension that Alvarez rarely, if ever, lets up. He gives us an ebb and flow of the suspense, a rise and then a fall; all to lull us in for the bigger jumps and surprises and jolts of pure adrenaline.
With three fantastic actors leading the way – Jane Levy, Stephen Lang, and Dylan Minnette – the story’s in proper hands. Added to that is the textured, gritty cinematography of Pedro Luque (The Silent House), capturing the Blind Man’s home in a spectacular spectrum of darkness and light, all shades of colours. There’s so much to enjoy, even when we’re taken down the rabbit hole of depravity after the secrets of the house are finally revealed.
There’s something thrilling about beginning in media res, as it sets the stage to either reach that pinnacle of terror exactly as we see it, or take us on a winding road to explain it to us differently, to show us the truth and perhaps make things more intense than they once seemed. So the ominous opener of the Blind Man (Lang) hauling an unconscious Rocky (Levy) down the road in a dilapidated Detroit neighbourhood is a powerful way to start the film, as it brings up a lot of questions, ones that remain unanswered right to the last minute.
Nice character development in the beginning. Rocky isn’t just a female character, she doesn’t get tossed in and used as a generic part of the story. Some horror movies do the Final Girl trope, and not to say that doesn’t happen to a certain extent here. But before any of that happens we’re introduced to her life, the hell from which she wants to escape. It isn’t a case of young girl wants to run away and start a new life, it’s a case of young girl lives in near squalor with a horrible mother and her neo-Nazi boyfriend and she’s got to get her kid sister OUT.
What’s more is that I like the relationship between Rocky and Alex (Minnette). It gives the film a romantic sort of story, as Alex pines quietly for his good friend. And we get it without any of the forced romance, there’s no cheesy love story. Rather, Alvarez and Sayagues make it part of the characters and use it mostly as the basis for Alex’s character/his motivations. Truly a solid bit of writing in the screenplay. Too many movies fall prey to the supposed need for romantic intrigue and in the course of that ruin characters, drag out portions of story to unneeded lengths, among other mistakes. Don’t Breathe gets this angle right, part of why it’s one of the better written horrors in the last 6 or 7 years.
This next part might need a disclaimer. I’ll just say that I’m not trying to be insensitive, because I don’t meant to be, this is merely an opinion.
I’ve seen a few reviews stating they wished a blind actor were used for the part Lang plays. And I have a problem with that. This isn’t the same as a black character being whitewashed, an Asian character being replaced with a white woman, or anything racial. Logistically, could they have used an actual blind person to fill the role? Maybe. I’m not saying there’s no blind actors who couldn’t handle the part. What I’m saying is that this is a movie. There’s only so much time they can film, there’s only so many takes a crew can do, and at the end of the day I think that acting is called acting for a reason.
Lang does some of his best work as The Blind Man. Furthermore, Alvarez and Sayagues don’t write him as a cliche, trope-ified blind character in that they don’t make his sense of smell and hearing A MILLION TIMES BETTER, because while no doubt some who are blind come to use their other senses with a keen edge, being blind doesn’t make you into a superhero of some sort. Between the character as written and the way Lang portrays him, I’d hope that it comes off as genuine. Also, I applaud the fact the Blind Man is, in essence, the villain of the story. The filmmakers don’t pose as trying to put all sorts of pity on this man, instead this disabled veteran is the monster in the shadows, the big bad. And that’s a lot of fun. Able bodied people take for granted the fact we see ourselves in all lights represented through cinema. What I love here is that, for anyone disabled, they get to have the experience of being represented as the villain, and through fiction these types of scenarios and characters allow us to understand the humanity of everybody; the able bodied and the disabled alike can be heroes and heroines, villains, any kind of character. Something often times forgotten by writers.
The nature of Don’t Breathe‘s plot – robbing the home of a blind man – allows for easy suspense. The choice of shots, the tension as the would-be robbers move through his house, the dead quiet of many scenes which raises the heart rate; these put that suspense up on blast. Alvarez draws it all out as the Blind Man’s home unleashes upon us the horror held within its walls. Keeping a story basically in one location for a whole film isn’t always easy. He does so with a feel of true claustrophobia which never eases.
What a finale. The final 20-25 minutes circles around a depraved edge. The bulk of Lang’s lines come here, the delivery and the writing together are like a sledgehammer. Lang has a special, subtle way of being ferocious, which he uses to full advantage in these moments. For a minute or two you feel anything, even the most brutal possibility, is wholly possible. Accompanied by the eerie score from Roque Baños (Sexy Beast, The Machinist, Cell 211) these are dreadful scenes worthy of awe.
I can’t stress enough that Don’t Breathe is one of 2016’s best horror films, the consensus is astounding. There will always be detractors, of any movie, but especially horror – so many fickle fans. Many of whom love to hate movies other horror fans enjoy a ton, like they get a thrill from being a contrarian. There are certain undeniable things about films, particularly horror, that aren’t subjective, and Alvarez – by all honest accounts – gives us amazingly palpable suspense the likes of which don’t come around often enough. Let this movie sink its hooks in, I highly doubt you’ll regret it.