The less known about Don’t Breathe going in, the better. The latest from director Fede Alvarez (the Evil Dead remake) is a nasty, vicious spin on the home invasion narrative. It’s also among the best horror movies of the year and easily a high point in what has been a lackluster summer season. Compact, efficient, and uncompromising, Don’t Breathe is one to absolutely sprint to the theater to see, presuming there’s an elevated tolerance for brutality and skin-peeling tension in play.
Three friends break into a blind man’s house thinking they have an easy, life-changing score in front of them. Turns out they picked the wrong blind dude to rob. From that simple, basic set up, Alvarez—who penned the script along with Rodo Sayagues (who collaborated with Alvarez on Evil Dead, as well as Panic Attack, the short that caught Sam Raimi’s attention)—turns in a veritable master class on how to create tension and constantly escalate pressure.
With a twinge of Martyrs and a healthy helping of People Under the Stairs (and a splash of Lovecraft’s “The Terrible Old Man” just for the hell of it), Don’t Breathe may not be wholly original—especially early on the building blocks are readily apparent—but it continually unfolds in unusual, unexpected ways. To say much more about the mechanics is to do the film and viewers a disservice. By no means does this reinvent the subgenre, but while operating within the confines, it toys with tropes and conventions, turns them on their heads, and offers a fresh, welcome perspective.
Nestled in the rugged urban blight of Detroit, Don’t Breathe may as well be set in an isolated mountain cabin. This is a different kind of wilderness that traps the characters. Rocky (Jane Levy, Evil Dead) dreams of a better life for her and her young sister, a life in California away from her atrocious home life. With a desperation and charm and humor, Levy is on pace for big things, crafting an urgent, defiant final girl who transcends simple victim clichés.
Anchored by his own family obligations, Alex (Dylan Minnette, Goosebumps) pines for Rocky, and his unrequited love leads to harsh times. And Money (Daniel Zovatto, It Follows)…well, it’s Rocky and Alex who propel the story, Money does gangster shit because he’s a gangster, or at least he wants to be. He has a homemade dollar sign tattoo on his neck, which tells all there is to tell. Even the Blind Man (Stephen Lang, Avatar) is weighed down by his own tragedy.
With a crisp, brisk pace that eases into the story and continues to gain momentum throughout, Don’t Breathe doesn’t waste time delving into superfluous backstories. It establishes what’s necessary, moves forward, and largely lets the subsequent actions and interactions build and define the characters. And Alvarez and company subject them to a brutal nightmare where no one deserves or receives redemption.
Less gore and more Hitchcock, equal parts New French Extremity and French New Wave, Alvarez films Don’t Breathe through a primal, visceral lens. From the first shot, which opens wide on the desolate sprawl, to the told-in-reverse structure, to the camera that soars around rooms and through walls of the dimly lit, run-down house, there’s a throwback tone and aesthetic that evokes a catalog of references and styles.
A few moments in Don’t Breathe stretch credulity—for an ancient, dilapidated house, the Blind Man’s domicile is remarkably free of squeaky floorboards, and, on occasion, the ability of his other senses borders on Daredevil-esque. His heightened abilities themselves aren't necessarily a problem, it's that the script deploys them inconsistently when it's convenient. Minor nitpicks in the grand scheme, falling well within the realm of standard cinematic suspension of disbelief, the tempo and narrative velocity more than push past any blemishes.
Go in cold, strap in for a relentless ride, and prepare for a full-frontal blast of exploitation glory. In a summer full of tepid tentpoles, lifeless sequels, and reboots galore, Don’t Breathe opens a timely, appreciated, and very necessary window, lets the stagnant air out of the theater, and invites in a savage tornado that will leave horror fans gasping until the last. [Grade: A-]