A new horror classic? Or just another would-be-classic?
Don’t Breathe is quite an interesting beast. It arrives on a plate of goodwill from director Fede Alvarez, whose Evil Dead remake was surprisingly enjoyable, and with a great deal of hype as one of the premier horror films of the year. In a year in which the masterful The Witch was released, Don’t Breathe would have to do quite a bit of heavy lifting in order to come close to that film’s refined chills.
The film begins with a sprint through the exposition that is most welcome in a horror genre dominating by uninteresting slogs through uninvolving stories. Each of our three main burglars are introduced, each is given defining characteristics, some relatable motivation and just ten minutes in we are introduced to the central concept. These three are going to rob the house of an ‘easy target’ – a blind man – in order to collect a major cash settlement acquired after the death of his daughter; however, this blind man is as far from incapable as he is from innocent.
Lead actress Jane Levy is very good, just as she was in Alvarez’s previous film, filling the likable every-man role serviceably without ridding her character of some selfish flaws that will come to define her. Her two cohorts, played by Dylan Minnette and Daniel Zovatto, are mostly one note, though they are adequate. Minnette is quite good at looking terrified while Zovatto is good at playing the kind of person every dad would hate. It’s essential for us to root for people who, in any other film, may be perceived as the villains. Thus, it’s a smart move by the filmmakers to unload all of the negative notions that we bring to these characters on to one of them, giving us room to root for the other two. Sadly, however good the performances are, this leaves them as simple tools for the filmmakers to use. For the most part, Stephen Lang is fairly good in a quite physical performance as the nameless antagonist. Even when saddled with some absolutely preposterous material, he handles himself well enough and manages to stay quite menacing.
The film begins with a brutal efficiency and, once Alvarez and Co. dive into the meat of the story, this efficiency persists through the terse high-wire act that is the first half of Don’t Breathe. It’s beautifully shot in Panic Room-style long takes that explore the layout of this house in methods that may seem slightly superfluous but are genuinely thrilling all the same. In addition, the film is accompanied by a terrifically booming soundtrack by Roque Baños, another holdover from Evil Dead. It’s a similar score and similarly effective. Throughout the film, there are jump scares but they are well designed and add to the tension rather than pulling the audience out of the film. The initial half of the film is everything a horror film should be: smart, brutal and economic in its storytelling.
Sadly, as you may tell by my need to stress one portion of the film over another, Don’t Breathe takes a turn and, with that turn, it lost me. The things I was appreciating the most about the film – smart decisions by the characters, a simple villain and tension wound so tightly the films feels as if it might snap – are suddenly thrown out the window in favor of ludicrous horror movie theatrics. Characters begin to make idiotic decisions in service of the plot and, when it comes to the bruising moments of violence, each main character survives far beyond any point of discernible reality. Even worse, the concept is stretched and stretched until the binds holding the story together begin to bend, contort and eventually break under the strain of Alvarez’s script. What initially seemed simple and admirable becomes a mess of scoff-inducing clichés.
Worst of all, the film’s villain is suddenly given a complex and uncomfortably silly ‘master plan’ and, as such, the tension goes straight out the window. It’s as if a particularly demented child took over writing the script with a mentality of ‘and then… and then…’ as they seek to constantly one-up whatever crazy plot turn they came up with last. There’s a certain sequence – already gaining a bit of a reputation – that treads across some material that should be disturbing and effective. Instead, it is ludicrous and unintentionally hilarious, ending in a gag so hilariously disgusting that it’s a wonder this thing wasn’t made by Eli Roth. Things do get pretty risky here in the film’s last act and, while some may laud the fact that the film “goes there,” it’s a risk that doesn’t pay off.
It’s a shame that a film with such a promising beginning and many serviceable parts never manages to coalesce but this lack of cohesion made me leave Don’t Breathe feeling uneasy. As I get further and further from the film, the positive attributes feel more distant and the truly terrible finale looms like a dark cloud over them. There is talent and promise here, to be sure, and I will be interested to see what Alvarez’s next film looks like. As it stands, Don’t Breathe is a lazily plotted misfire, containing as many moments of frustration as it does glimmers of inspiration.
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