Director – Fede Alvarez
Cast – Stephen Lang, Jane Levy, Dylan Minnette, Daniel Zovatto, Emma Bercovici, Franciska Töröcsik
Release Year – 2016
Reviewed by John of the Dead
After leaving the ground literally drenched blood with 2013’s Evil Dead, auteur Fede Alvarez abandons gore and the supernatural to give us a tale that instead focuses on thrilling tension and suspense. The story follows a trio of friends who break into the homes of the wealthy and sell the stolen goods to street dealers. When their leader gets a tip about a blind veteran sitting on a major cash settlement stemming from the wrongful death of his only child, they see a golden opportunity for an easy job with a major payout. What was supposed to be a quick gig turns into a night of terror when they find themselves locked in the home and faced with the shocking discovery that their seemingly helpless victim has more to hide than his money.
I really enjoy stories like these where criminals find themselves over their heads and then become the pseudo victims. You will see stories like this in the awesome Deep Rising, and somewhat-recent films like The Aggression Scale and Rites of Spring. This screenplay comes penned by Fede Alvarez and his usual collaborator Rodo Sayagues. They kick things off with a little bit of backstory behind our protagonists. Rocky (Evil Dead star Jane Levy) has aspiring dreams to leave Detroit for California – taking her sister with her and leaving her negligent mother behind. Money (Daniel Zovatto; It Follows)is her boyfriend and the leader of the burglary trio. He is the muscle behind the group and also wants to give Rocky the opportunity to leave for a better life. Alex (Dylan Minnette; Goosebumps, Let Me In) is the brains of the operation, using his father’s employment at a local security company to exploit the alarms of the houses they break into. Each of these characters offers a different dynamic to the story. Rocky is desperate, Money is brooding, and Alex is the shy sensitive one who is only there because they can’t do it without him. They make a good team though, and they are about to up the ante on the nature of their heists. To prevent grand larceny charges in the event they get caught, Alex only allows them to take under $10,000 worth of goods from the homes, with a strict no-cash policy. When the tip comes in about the blind veteran they are faced with an opportunity that is too hard to pass up. After casing the old man’s home they find out he isn’t just blind but also lives in an abandoned neighborhood with no neighbors to get in the way.
When the decision is made to give it a go is when the tension begins to hit the screen. Before they even enter the home we already have our first thrills as entering the home will be easier said than done. With each window adorned with burglar bars and each door flooded with multiple locks, they have to make quite a bit of noise in order to get inside. This leaves the viewer on the edge of their seat as you expect the old man to be awoken or startled at all the noise going on outside his home. He may be blind, but you will learn later on that his other senses have adapted to his disability and are therefore heightened. The remainder of the film is an all-out thrill ride that becomes a cat and mouse game when the man discovers he isn’t alone in his home. I really liked that I was able to place myself in their shoes and play around in my head about how I would go with escaping the home. See, the man’s home isn’t just fortified to keep people out. It is also intended to keep people from leaving as well. Why? Well, you soon realize that he has more to hide than just his money. This is where the burglars really begin to regret their actions. What was supposed to be a quick heist has now become a battle for their lives, and there really isn’t a way they are going to get out without some sort of sacrifice. If they survive they cannot go to the police about what they saw in the home because they would have to admit to the crimes they committed. Unfortunately, as they find themselves closer and closer to certain death they realize calling the police may be the only way they survive the night.
Alvarez’s direction really sells this simple story. His execution is spot-on, starting off with awesome atmosphere once they get inside the man’s home. It’s a decrepit house with lots of shadowy corners and creaky floors that make it hard for them to navigate without giving away their position. I really enjoyed these sets and also enjoyed the sets used behind the padlocked door hiding the man’s deepest secrets. The cinematography is wonderful and I was impressed with the lights-out scenes where our characters are left in total darkness. This scene was done to give the old man an edge, bringing the burglars into his world. There isn’t much as far as gore goes, and that was intentional. Alvarez did not want to hear that he used gore to sell the film, which he heard regarding his Evil Dead sequel. At least the kill scenes shown still pack a punch. There are scenes later in the film that were executed in a full-frontal fashion that I was not expecting to see. He showed guts with these scenes, and I was so shocked that I could not do anything else but laugh at how insane they were. His direction of the actors is good, and I really enjoyed how he used Stephen Lang (Avatar, Manhunter) as the blind man. Lang has a knack for playing very domineering roles and he excels at this one. His disability is confused with weakness and that proves to be a big mistake. He only has about a dozen lines, with most of them occurring during the final sequence, but every time he speaks his voice penetrates the film. The other actors did just fine, but it is Lang who steals the show.
I only have one gripe with this film and it is a story-related one. I really would not even so much call it a gripe as it is quite inevitable for a story like this. Because the protagonists are criminals, and on top of that are robbing a blind man of settlement money that came from wrongful death of his daughter, I felt no pity for them. In fact, I felt more pity for the blind man. The death of his daughter took a toll on his psyche, and these young criminals are trying to take away the only justice he received for her death. He is a not a saint though, but nonetheless the burglars were unaware of his secrets when they broke in so they don’t get a free pass for it. I did enjoy seeing them get what is coming to them, so again this story arch isn’t so much a gripe. It is an inevitable fault at pitting criminals against criminals.
Overall, Don’t Breathe is a good horror/thriller with an interesting premise I highly enjoyed seeing. Alvarez’s execution is good and it results in some shocking scenes that make this one of the better genre efforts of 2016.