Don’t Breathe, 2016.
Directed by Fede Alvarez.
Starring Jane Levy, Stephen Lang, Dylan Millette and Daniel Zovatto.
Rocky, a young woman wanting to start a better life for her and her sister, agrees to take part in the robbery of a house owned by a wealthy blind man with her boyfriend Money and their friend Alex. But when the blind man turns out to be a serial killer, the group must find a way to escape his home before they become his newest victims.
A good premise can get you most of the way towards a good movie, or at the very least an interesting one. But a premise, bear in mind, is just the starting point. There’s a lot of work to be done taking that premise and working it to its full potential. Don’t Breathe has a very interesting premise, a twist on the classic “home invasion” formula for horror/thrillers. But it’s that next step where Fede Alvarez’s latest film falters somewhat. The period where the film is all about exploiting the potential of the core idea is a fine bit of high-tension fun. But the it also feels unwilling or unable to take that premise and expand it into a whole film, throwing so many new threats and twists at us in its third act that the end result feels more exasperating than frightening.
The core idea is sound: a home invasion goes bad when the invaded, a blind ex-military guy, turns the tables on the young invaders, grabbing a gun, sealing the exits and forcing them into a deadly cat-and-mouse game. And when Don’t Breathe is all about that and that alone, it’s really fun. The tension is genuine and the scares often feel less like traditional jump scares and more like sudden white-hot flashes of suspense. Rather than shock, the film endeavors, and mostly succeeds, to keep its audience clenched tight with tension.
But once the film’s bag of tricks begins to run low, things start to feel a bit on the silly side. First our protagonists discover some unsavory secrets about their would-be target, which only makes it somewhat more excusable that they were plotting to rob a blind old man, well….blind. Then, as we enter the third act, the slow burn becomes a bit of a raging fire as Don’t Breathe starts throwing an attack dog, more twists, and eventually the threat of some very ugly sexual violence at the audience. This last one wouldn’t be quite so bad if it didn’t seem to come straight out of nowhere, like an unwelcome guest suddenly arriving at your doorstep. “Oh hello, turkey baster full of the unmentionable, what brings you around? Just in the neighborhood you say? Well I was actually just on my way out – oh alright then make yourself at home”.
In the last ten minutes or so, the film even becomes an ersatz Cujo for a scene, in a well executed but tacked-on sequence that feels added solely to get the film closer to the 90-minute mark.
Which is a shame, because the film is ultimately still rather good. Jane Levy and Dylan Minnette turn in solid performances, though admittedly in somewhat cliche roles as the gutsy survivor and the milquetoast beta-male. The interesting wrinkle in Levy’s character, at least, is the moral grey area she comfortably and willfully inhabits from beginning to end. Jane’s Rocky, desperate to get her and her little sister away from their toxic home life, is willing to do anything to make off with the old man’s money.
Though survival is always her goal, she never loses sight of the bag of cash she came here for. At times this can be frustrating, and most audience members will probably find themselves shouting at the screen over her determination to make off with the money, even if it means blatantly endangering herself and others. But Rocky also never once apologizes for her actions or herself. She’s perfectly willing to steal, even from the blind. She isn’t a selfless altruist or a pure-hearted “final girl”, preordained to survive to the end through virtue of her unflappable morality. This, at least, makes her interesting enough as a protagonist.
The film should also get some major accolades for finally giving Stephen Lang to do besides play gruff military antagonists. Although technically he still is, but a different kind this time around. Lang comes off quite well in a role that demands a bit more emotion and nuance than what he delivered in Avatar or Conan The Barbarian. Though just a bit.
Don’t Breathe is one of those films that may have wound up working better as a short than a feature film. The premise is sound and well-executed, but things go somewhat off the rails when that premise has run its course and the film finds itself with another half-hour of running time to fill up. It’ll definitely have you on-edge for parts of it, but it’s also just as likely to produce a lot of rolled eyes when the finale rolls around and it starts to become a non-stop succession of shocks and twists.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★