Movie Review: Don’t Breathe
R | 1h 28min
Director: Fede Alvarez
by Jason Koenigsberg
A group of friends break into a blind man’s house hoping to steal from him but end up with way more than they bargained for in Don’t Breathe, a pulse-pounding new thriller with terrifying twists around each turn.
The opening shot is a birds eye view of a street and some houses. Slowly it zooms in closer to reveal a man in the middle of the empty street dragging a body. It then jumps to a completely different scene where we meet our three main characters, two men and a woman, all in their late teens or early twenties as they break into a house surpassing the home security system to rob it while the owners are away.
Don’t Breathe takes place in Detroit and like last years surprise horror hit It Follows, it is very refreshing to see a genre picture set in a blue collar, working class neighborhood. This film is very much a product of its time period even though horror movies are not usually known for subtle social commentary, thrills are timeless, but the setting added to the characters desperation to get money and get out of the poor city they live in. Director Fede Alvarez throws in great establishing shots illustrating urban decay and how the economic recession has hurt a big city. The three young burglars all long for a better life and talk about robbing houses so they can move to California.
They learn of a blind man who lives alone after his daughter was killed in a car accident and that he keeps the money he received from the settlement hidden in his house. They break in and quickly learn they are in way over their heads. That is all that you should know about the plot before going to see Don’t Breathe. This film managed to pack in surprises with thrills, a lot of jump scares, genuinely disturbing moments and never skimps on the character development or the themes of how people will risk so much just to try and get money to live more comfortably. It is very interesting how this movie makes you root for three young adults stealing from an older blind man. The way its presents its characters and their conflicts is distinctive from usual horror films.
There is tension early on between the three burglars especially between the two young men who both seem to want the affection of the girl. Jane Levy, who plays the female thief, is a fine young talent with a great screen presence and manages to get the audience to feel what she is going through. I hope that her performance here leads to other great roles where she can flex her skills in other genres. A very special shout out needs to go to veteran actor Stephen Lang who plays the blind man. He is so good in this role that he deserves much attention and praise, he should be in the discussion for an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor. If he does not receive one, it will mainly be due to the fact that Don’t Breathe is a horror movie and the Academy very seldom recognizes great work in genre pictures such as this. Overall the acting is great, but Jane Levy and Stephen Lang both deliver exceptional performances that make Don’t Breathe stand out from most other horror movies. All the actors do a great job delivering performances with such little dialogue, yet when Lang speaks it is chill inducing.
The other main reason this movie works so effectively is because of the director. Fede Alvarez helmed the 2013 Evil Dead remake which I was not very fond of, but in Don’t Breathe he does everything right. There are interesting shots in the dark like one that started off really close and pulled back to reveal that we were looking at a gun under the bed of the blind man as he was sleeping. Also Alvarez kept the action and thrills interesting by switching his use of film stock for different scenes and using different techniques as the burglars went through different rooms of the house so the pacing never felt slow and the scares never felt like retreads because we were seeing them differently.
I mentioned the Oscars before and I realize that it is a long shot that Don’t Breathe will receive any Academy recognition for the actors, but it really should take home the prize for Best Sound and Sound Editing. I cannot imagine a film using sound effects and use of silence better than Don’t Breathe does. There is a scene where a cell phone rings and it feels like a bomb just went off.
Don’t Breathe delivers effective scares and is increasingly thrilling the whole time. Also, one of it’s strongest elements was the ending. I mentioned last years sleeper hit It Follows and this movie is similar with the setting and overall sense of dread. However that movie, had a very weak ending. Don’t Breathe actually has a climax and resolution that fit both stylistically and thematically. In fact when it was over and the credits rolled I said out loud, “What a great ending!”.
Don’t Breathe took heavily from Green Room another claustrophobic horror thriller from earlier this year and The Witch is a horror film that has grown on me significantly since I saw it back in February, but Don’t Breathe is the best horror film of the year and is so effectively well made it is unlikely anything from that genre will surpass it.