I love getting scared and horrified by horror films, yet I can’t remember the last time I even came close to looking away from a film out of sheer horror. It happened in Don’t Breathe, during a particularly disgusting sequence (you’ll know it when you see it), where had the particular part gone on for even a second more, I would have had to turn away. What I was witnessing was that horrific and repulsive. And yes, I mean that as praise.
Three Detroit teens – Rocky (Jane Levy), Alex (Dylan Minnette) and Money (Daniel Zovatto) – are on a robbery spree and happen upon the perfect score. A blind man (Stephen Lang) lives alone in a neighborhood that is practically void of residents – the dying economy of Detroit plays a nice undercurrent through the film – and rumor has it he’s sitting on six figures that is somewhere in the house. They enter the home one night to complete the robbery, but find that their mark is a vicious psychopath and that they may not make it out alive. To detail anything more of what happens would be a crime of cinema, and rob you of the endless surprises that writer/director Fede Alvarez crafts in Don’t Breathe.
The sound design is the quality of what other filmmakers should aspire to. It enhances each and every little sound that the characters and environment made to accent the inherent danger of, well, even breathing – but it never feels gimmicky. It just washes over you and envelops you in its constant state of tension. You keep waiting, listening, for what sound is going to be the one that sends them spiraling into this nightmare. When the camera focuses on a character, you hear their breath, hear their surroundings as they do.
The cast is well-suited for their roles. Dylan Minnette has been racking up a nice resume, notching roles in Denis Villeneuve’s masterpiece Prisoners, the underloved Matt Reeves remake Let Me In, and last year’s surprisingly fun Goosebumps. He plays the “good” guy of the trio well, he just naturally seems trustworthy. Jane Levy sells you her fear, and that’s harder to do than it sounds, to capture immediacy in the emotions and reactions like she does. Re-teaming with Alvarez after the 2013 remake Evil Dead, she’s finding a certain groove in horror and genre work. Daniel Zovatto can now claim on his resume that he’s been in 2 great Detroit-set horror films, the other being 2014’s It Follows. Stephen Lang is pretty much perfect casting for this blind Terminator of a nightmare. For years I’ve believed, without having to have a film with this premise, that Lang could easily demolish anyone without his eyesight. He just looks that tough and menacing. He has probably less than 20 lines, and he doesn’t need a word more to terrify you. It’s all in how he carries himself. He sniffs the air, twitches his head at whatever sound he hears. It’s a physical, animalistic performance. One sequence has him lumbering down some stairs in crouched position, with the light backdropping him from a doorway. It’s iconic imagery that Lang has the skill to display. What’s interesting is that every character of the teens is a pretty awful person in certain regards, yet you still find yourself attached to them and wanting them to live. They deserve some sort of come-uppance, sure, but not to this degree. They’re admirably complex characters, and while that success begins with Alvarez and Rodo Sayagues’ script, it doesn’t work without the performances of this cast.
This film never runs out of tricks to pull on you. It anticipates every single one of your anticipations, and knows how to subvert and reinvent them. Alvarez and Sayagues wield a script born out of pure inventiveness and creativity. A film primarily in one location shouldn’t have this many fresh set pieces and sequences. It’s a triumph of ingenuity and storytelling. Don’t Breathe has a superb sense of spacial awareness, using proximity to danger to inform the shots and camera angles. Alvarez’s camera whirls around its location, taking in every nook and cranny, giving the audience the information they’ll need to navigate this central set piece. Alvarez broke out years ago with an impressive little short called Panic Attack!, and delivered superb, nasty work with his 2013 remake Evil Dead, a film that was far better than any remake of a classic had any right to be. Now with Don’t Breathe, we get his first, for lack of a better word, personal work. It’s all from him, no previously existing intellectual property. Don’t Breathe is proof that Alvarez is the real deal, a nutty, inventive filmmaker. The score by Roque Baños is a claustrophobic work. It’s cold and metallic, thumping underneath the floorboards of each scene, creating a state of constant, elusive tension.
There’s a lot of discussion to be had over the climax, and whether or not it crosses any lines. Without getting into spoiler territory, I’ll say yes, of course it does cross lines. But the reaction to it only shows misunderstanding from critics. They seem to presuppose that we’re supposed to be rooting for a certain awful, gruesome act to take place. If you think that for one second, you’ve got issues. Of course you’re supposed to be horrified by it. Like I said before, I almost turned away and covered my eyes. I fear this film may fall victim to outrage culture, as if art isn’t something that should be complicated and confront you. Go out into the world and challenge yourself. See something that offends you. Support art that doesn’t conform. Go see Don’t Breathe.