Director: Fede Alvarez
Stars: Stephen Lang, Jane Levy, Daniel Zovatto
Well, what a repugnant little thriller this is. Depending on your constitution that’s either a word of warning or a ringing endorsement. Fede Alvarez’s home invasion horror (exec produced by his former Evil Dead godfather Sam Raimi) is a throwback to the kind of unsavoury B pictures churned out by independent filmmakers of the late 70’s and early 80’s, unafraid to demonise the disabled or afflicted if the process churned out a few good scares and secured enough bums on seats. Don’t Breathe will have you squirming if that’s what you want, but its an incessantly tawdry affair.
Rocky (Jane Levy), Alex (Dylan Minnette) and, err, Money (Daniel Zovatto) are three down-on-their-luck Detroit stooges barely cresting their twenties who make a living robbing houses. Their hot streak is coming to its end, and one vague tip promises them a last score of extremely tempting riches. Their target is the only inhabited house in a forgotten neighbourhood, home to a blind man (Stephen Lang) – literally, just credited as The Blind Man – who has supposedly been sitting on $300,000 after his daughter was killed in a car accident.
These kids are amateur hour, acting out of opportunism and desperation (see Rocky’s context-setting scene on the trailer set from Killer Joe), so it’s little surprise that they soon find themselves out of their depth. Y’see, Lang’s Blind Man is ex-army, knows a thing or two about defending himself, has buttoned his house up like a sonofabitch and is keeping a few illegal secrets of his own. Before you can say “best laid plans” our three antiheroes are in a jackpot; locked in with the Blind Man who – surprise, surprise – has honed his other senses to supernatural acuity. Suddenly that mundane title takes on added currency. Get set go for an extended game of creep-around-the-blind-man.
There’s an internal dynamic between our three (Rocky and Money are a couple, Alex is the supposed ‘nice guy’ stuck in the “friend zone”), but this plays second fiddle to the more visceral thrills Alvarez has in store, as busted locks reveal secrets and Don’t Breathe positions itself as rival to Green Room for the Well That Escalated Quickly Award of 2016. You might quite naturally say, “why don’t they just leave?” when Blind Man starts throwing down, but Alvarez’s script has compensated for that quite conveniently. No, this is a lock-in, and one that swiftly enters kill-or-be-killed territory.
Lang’s Blind Man – disfigured by a grenade blast – barely speaks, more prone to grunting and sniffing the air than emoting or communicating in any recognisable human way. This portrayal of blindness skirts exceedingly close to outright offensive; there’s little separating him from his vicious rottweiler, and the little there is ultimately makes the blood-thirsty dog the friendly prospect. As ever in this kind of movie, going into the bad man’s basement is the last thing you want to do.
Lang’s chewed up the antagonist role before (see Avatar) so he’s a safe bet with what he’s been given. Shining brighter is young Levy, who puts grit and gusto into her rather cliché last-girl-in-the-making role. While everyone here is in some way reprehensible for their actions, Rocky is the most sympathetic – though that may just be because she arguably goes through the wringer more than her male counterparts (again, no surprise when you consider the genre). And spare a thought for poor Minnette, whose one acting note in the entire film seems to have been, “Hey, do that 😮 emoji shock face again! More! HARDER!”
What does surprise is the sinuous script, which keeps turning the screws and admirably reconstituting the odds within the Blind Man’s house. Technically too, Don’t Breathe is impressively slick and proficient. Alvarez’s camera zooms about the place keying the audience in to visual clues and placeholders for future encounters. You know where the keys are, where the broken glass is on the floor, where the lump hammer is kept etc. When these elements come into play Alvarez doesn’t need to pause; the audience, if they’ve been paying the slightest attention, is up to speed. And the story presented is a dose more craven than you might be expecting. A late scene involving multiple sofa cushions, a harness and a baster will remain with viewers whether they want it to or not.
As such – and with such a protracted final act – it’s hard not to come away from Don’t Breathe without feeling as though you kind of need a shower. This is a grubby, violent, seedy little experience, one that tells you in its eye-catching opening shot exactly where it’s going, then fools you into thinking you didn’t know all along. Unpleasant as it may be, Alvarez throws us Don’t Breathe like a wild card. If studios are happy to let his warped mind loose with their money, who knows what future journeys into the dark we might have to look forward to.
That last might have been a poor choice of words given the circumstances. Don’t Breathe is a fail in the fight for fairer, more insightful depictions of blindness in cinema, but in terms of gutter thrills, it’s something of a riot. Probably a future so-called ‘cult hit’ but the kind people talk about with phrases like, “Oh, you remember that fucked up film…?”