Evil Dead Director Returns With Don’t Breathe
August 29, 2016
In a year already chock full of great horror films, it takes something truly special to stand out from the pack. What director Fede Alvarez’s Don’t Breathe has is its simplicity, foregoing overwrought exposition in favor of unrelenting tension to create what may be the best true horror film of the year yet.
Set in a harshly realistic Detroit, Don’t Breathe follows Rocky (Jane Levy), a young woman determined to free her and her sister from their abusive mother. However, she lacks the cash for a plane ticket, so she decides to raise funds by breaking into the homes of the wealthy clients of her friend Alex’s (Dylan Minnette) father. Everything goes off without a hitch, every robbery reaping decent profits. Even so, Rocky’s boyfriend Money (Daniel Zovatto) isn’t satisfied, enlisting Rocky and Alex to help him break into the house of a blind, aged veteran (Stephen Lang) who recently made a small fortune from a court settlement.
Unfortunately for the trio of thieves, the house’s owner (he’s known only as The Blind Man) proves to be far more than ready to defend himself by any means necessary, killing Money and trapping Alex and Rocky in his heavily secure home. It’s then that the real horror begins, nearly every second of the film’s brisk, 88-minute running time a desperate, brutal fight for survival.
Alvarez and his small crew, cinematographer Pedro Luque, and the sound department in particular have crafted one of the most relentlessly tense films in recent memory. Taking full advantage of the situation our “heroes” find themselves in, one in which every movement or even breath can mean death, they grab the audience with a metallic grip and rarely let go. The use of subtle hints at future scares is especially effective, as is Luque’ decision to drift through the house with several tracking shots. Their techniques allow the viewer to feel as if they are some kind of specter, witnessing something that should never be seen.
The most impressive sequence in the film is set in the house’s labyrinthine basement. There, The Blind Man forces Rocky and Alex into his world, turning off the lights and therefore shrouding them in darkness. It’s a brilliant exercise in disorientation, and one which features some of the best sound design in any recent film.
Alvarez is aided by the exceptional performances of Minnette, Levy, and Lang. The closest thing the film has to a moral compass, Minnette’s Alex is by far Don’t Breathe’s most likable character, his obvious affection for Rocky endlessly endearing. Levy is just as great, her experience as a horror movie heroine (she starred in Alvarez’s 2013 remake of The Evil Dead) always apparent, namely in the final act. What’s most intriguing about Rocky, however, is that she is an atypical protagonist in nearly every way. The screenplay challenges the audience to root for a woman who is, ultimately, a thief looking to rob a disabled veteran.
As excellent as Levy and Minnette are, it’s Lang’s Blind Man that owns the film, commanding the screen with the kind of visceral power only achieved by the greatest of horror movie villains. While his character would be the hero in any other film, Don’t Breathe instead allows Lang to explore a multilayered character whose mostly understandable motivations lead to unspeakable horrors. Lang’s performance is even more impressive when you consider that it is, for the most part, non-verbal; the actor’s hulking physicality does most of the talking.
The lone scene in which Don’t Breathe fails to sustain its tension is its epilogue. Feeling tacked-on and entirely unnecessary, it’s the film’s sole weakness.
Don’t Breathe is an exceptional horror film; its scares elicit a sense of terror and tension rarely captured by modern thrillers. Featuring complex, delightfully unique characterization and Stephen Lang’s most intense performance yet, director Fede Alvarez has crafted a film that promises true greatness in his future.