Don't Breathe cuts a fresh path, providing thrill-seeking moviegoers and horror die-hards with an inventive as well as terrifying movie experience.
The victim of an abusive mother and absentee father, Rocky (Jane Levy) has taken it upon herself to care for her younger sister, Diddy. Desperate to move Diddy away from their decaying trailer park home to a better life in California, Rocky agrees to join her boyfriend, Money (Daniel Zovatto), in stealing from a reclusive homeowner. After a solid run of robbing locals, and with the help of Rocky's best friend, Alex (Dylan Minnette), Money assumes they'll have no trouble securing their next score: a cash-packed safe in the home of an aging blind man (Stephen Lang).
Unfortunately for Rocky, Money, and Alex, the man is more than they anticipated: a war veteran, blinded in combat, who in spite of his condition, has fine-tuned his senses and knows every square inch of his home. Rocky and Money's easy score turns into a lethal game of cat and mouse - and the pair run for their lives as The Blind Man pursues his intruders without mercy.
Don't Breathe is the sophomore feature release from Fede Alvarez (director of 2013's well-received remake of Evil Dead) - who, in addition to helming Don't Breathe, also co-wrote the screenplay with frequent collaborator Rodo Sayagues. Unlike Evil Dead, Don't Breathe allows the filmmaker to develop his own horror-thriller for the big screen, without the baggage (or, conversely, franchise boost) of a known property. The result? A fresh, gripping, and downright scary film. Instead of relying on familiar scares or an iconic movie monster, Don't Breathe cuts a fresh path, providing thrill-seeking moviegoers and horror die-hards with an inventive as well as terrifying movie experience.
Despite notable exceptions, the horror genre is packed with movies that pit a crew of stereotypical teenagers against supernatural entities. The formula doesn't always result in original scares but typically turns a solid profit for the studio - meaning there isn't always incentive for writers, directors, and producers to cultivate something unique. Fortunately, Alvarez was undeterred and Don't Breathe supplies an immersive 88 minutes of movie-watching - built around a carefully crafted premise and clever iterations on that framework. Character motivations, backstory, and relationships are fuel for the plot, rather than particularly nuanced or impactful, and Alvarez sometimes struggles to keep his protagonists sympathetic - given that, separate from The Blind Man's menacing response, they are thieves stealing from a disabled veteran. Still, while Don't Breathe's teenage protagonists often land in shallow character outline territory, Alvarez's movie is, above all else, a clever twist on home invasion horrors trope - allowing the larger film (in concept and execution) to rise above any cliche character dynamics.
Any shortcomings in the characters of Money, Alex, and Rocky especially, shouldn't be pinned on their respective performers. Daniel Zovatto, Dylan Minnette, and Jane Levy are solid throughout but they're confined by the limits and logistics of the Don't Breathe plot - a movie in which characters spend much of the film sneaking around not spouting exposition. Levy (returning for Alvarez after her starring role in Evil Dead), gets the most to work with and imbues Rocky with a few added layers of nuance - even if Don't Breathe restricts her from exploring Rocky beyond basic motivations. Alvarez makes effort to say something meaningful about Rocky, who takes a risk on freeing herself from a violent mother only to be confined in a different house by a malevolent man, but the thematic through-line (the struggle to overcome and escape abuse) never quite reaches the same level of success as the film's scares.
Ultimately, the real star of Don't Breathe - and what makes the film so unique - is The Blind Man (played by Stephen Lang) and his home. While there's more to the character and his house than the teens assume (allowing space for Don't Breathe to explore a few twists), it is the combination of Lang's unhinged performance with playful directorial choices from Alvarez that make the character engrossing. Like Levy, the focus of Don't Breathe is on the situation more than developing The Blind Man into a fully-realized character - and Alvarez's restrained approach to the blind antagonist makes him even scarier. In fact, one specific scene that attempts to shed light on The Blind Man will, for some viewers, threaten to send Don't Breathe off its otherwise straightforward narrative track; though, for some, that same moment will be a much-talked about highlight of the film.
The Blind Man, and Don't Breathe as a whole, are at their best when juxtaposing moments of wrenching silence and stillness with tension-snapping scenes of panic and brutality. Alvarez establishes the world and rules of Don't Breathe early-on - arranging a robust stage on which he can surprise his audience, all without relying on grotesque violence. In fact, most scares in Don't Breathe come from the threat of violence not blood and guts. Thanks to this careful world-building (even if that world-building comes at the expense of character development), the director makes it easy for viewers to understand the limitations of his home-sized sandbox - so that drastic shifts in the plot actually land and supply more than shock value alone.
Alvarez delivers on his vision with even execution and clever filmmaking choices throughout Don't Breathe - carrying viewers through a warped and pulse-pounding horror-thriller. Select moments undercut Don't Breathe's smart setup but, even in the most outrageous scenes, Alvarez (with Levy and Lang) keeps viewers invested in moment-to-moment events. The film isn't exactly a genre-defying must-see, capable of winning-over moviegoers who were never intrigued by the film's premise, but Alvarez has developed a cohesive thrill ride - one that makes playful use of its antagonist and, by extension, its audience.
Don't Breathe runs 88 minutes and is Rated R for terror, violence, disturbing content, and language including sexual references. Now playing in theaters.
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