8 out of 10
Jane Levy as Rocky
Directed by Fede Alvarez
Don’t Breathe Review:
Critics and fans can (and do) too easily throw around descriptors like Kafkaesque and Hitchockian when groping for ways to describe new works which are similar but not really like the creations which informed those names. The draw is obvious – they’re easy shortcuts – but they hide the fact that the films and stories of today are as different from those of older parents. Nor should they be as a medium and genre can’t grow if it keeps repeating the same strictures over and over, if it leaves itself only to the things it ‘should’ do and doesn’t investigate what it ‘could’ do. In the thriller realm, this has been a move towards greater and greater speed of plot, incorporating more and more twists and turns at the expense of character. While this is often held up as a modern weakness, when as well executed as Fede Alvarez’s Don’t Breathe, the reality is that we gain as much from constant changes as we lose and there is probably no perfect iteration.
Eschewing the supernatural or motive-less psychopaths, Alvarez’s (Evil Dead) newest thriller focuses instead on a gang of organized and experienced teen thieves going for the one big score which will change their lives and quickly finding themselves in over their heads. The score is a lone house in a dilapidated neighborhood, housing a blind Iraq War vet (Lang) and a million dollars in cash. It’s a set up as easily understood and yet as full of possibility as the best of the thriller genre, ignoring detailed character work to craft a lean suspense film which exists purely to keep its audience white-knuckled for as long as possible.
The vet blunders through his own house, frequently unaware the young intruders are there, drawing out tension as the other actors scramble to get out of his way or merely by having him stand there, just at their feet. With our young ‘heroes’ as the actual villains who have come to do him at least monetary harm, the sequences become even more complex, full or moral and physical dilemma, and show just how much can be drawn from a powerful idea even with characters who don’t much exist beyond ‘girl trapped in house.’
It gets even better in the second act when the Blind Man turns the tables on the intruders, shutting off the power and throwing them into the dark, leaving all sides without sight and only the audience in the God chair, aware of what is happening. This is Alvarez at his best, fully aware of what cinema can do as a medium and how to take advantage of it to craft the effect he wants. However, while modern films shouldn’t repeat every element of the past – classics are there for inspiration and not replication – the downside is that in the quest for the new, even interesting and well-conceived movies can occasionally fly off the trails blazed by their elders into the thorny underbrush of potentially bad ideas. While Alvarez is excellent at the simple and elegant set up, his desire to twist and turn his choices and to keep doing so, though understandable, also exposes the weaknesses of his decisions. The Blind Man, dangerous enough as the victim of a home invasion, also has his own secret which the thieves threaten to expose and which he will protect at all cost.
Rather than deepen the tension as Alvarez intends, Don’t Breathe veers off into the realm of the silly in its last act, particularly during an extended sequence with a turkey baster which is intended to bring on dread but has very much the opposite effect. And because he’s not bothered with character, preferring to just jump into the story and keep it going, he has little choice in the end but to just keep coming up with more jump scares and more twists. It undermines the strong work of the first two-thirds and threatens to deaden the audiences senses rather than sharpen their thrill. The film points up again his inability to settle on a conclusion, instead offering a false ending which then blossoms into an extended final sequence which ultimately lacks power because it is separated from the tense initial set-up. That said, the first two-thirds of Don’t Breathe are as solid a piece of thriller filmmaking as Hollywood has produced in a while. If it occasionally loses its way, that’s a necessary trade off and side-effect for the experimentation every genre needs and for that what problems it has can be forgiven.