Don’t Breathe (2016)

This house looked like an easy target. Until they found what was inside.

Earlier this year writer-director Jeremy Saulnier shocked audiences with his vastly realistic, intensely violent survival-horror Green Room, a movie that smartly utilized its compact setting to generate a maximum level of blood-curdling tension. Now with his sophomore feature, Don’t Breathe, Uruguayan filmmaker Fede Alvarez — who once again joins forces with producer Sam Raimi and Robert Tapert of Ghost House Pictures — matches the heights of the said flick, Alvarez crafting a taut ‘one location’ spine-chiller that triumphs as a viciously entertaining exercise in suspense, the film (in today’s saturated market) standing out as one of the bolder studio-produced thrillers.

'Shhhh ... no one cares.'
‘Shhhh … no one cares.’

Our story’s premise is quite simple: a group of delinquent teens — Rocky (Jane Levy), a young woman wanting to kick-start a better life for herself and her kid sister (away from their neglectful mother), along with her roughneck boyfriend Money (Daniel Zovatto) and trepidatious friend Alex (Dylan Minnette) — plan to (late one night) break into a wealthy old man’s home, conveniently situated in an abandoned neighborhood, in order to nick a serious amount of money — some rumored three-hundred thousand dollars (in cash). Problem is, the man (who just so happens to be blind) turns out to be more adept, and not as helpless, as originally envisioned, flipping the switch on the trio of burglars by trapping them inside of his nightmarish, elaborately laid out property. Thus, with the tables turned and their heist gone awry, the lawbreakers become the victims as a deadly game of cat and mouse ensues, each new ‘setting’ presenting its own unique challenges, the power scale constantly tipping from one end to the other.

If Don’t Breathe tells us anything, it’s that director Fede Alvarez is a talent to look out for, his heart-pounding follow-up to Evil Dead (2013) ratcheting the scare factor up to eleven. Taking cues from Alfred Hitchcock and David Fincher — think Panic Room (2002) — Alvarez relies less on dialogue and more on visuals to tell this anxiety-driven tale as Don’t Breathe goes for the jugular with nail-biting sights and sounds: the experience, truly visceral. Filmed in Budapest, Hungary, which convincingly stands in for a dilapidated Detroit, Don’t Breathe is unnervingly grim and gritty; from the heavily fortified ‘house of horrors,’ forged by production designer Naaman Marshall, The Visit (2015), to the chilling vistas by cinematographer Pedro Luque, The Silent House (2010), the shadowy aesthetics and skilful manipulation of light vs. dark emitting a genuine sense of gloom and danger.

Blind Terror
Blind Terror

Moreover, the carefully drafted labyrinthine set pieces and clever choreography add a further sense of claustrophobic dread, the camera creeping around the decrepit home via some excellent extended tracking shots, viewers simply getting a glimpse of certain items/ locations (such as tools or doorways) that may potentially come into play later on, this creative decision keeping audiences on their toes. With our thieves attempting to steer through the multi-storied fortress noiselessly, the layered sound design is excruciatingly uneasy, too — a scene where Rocky and Alex scramble across the pitch-black basement, desperately trying to flee from the Blind Man (whose senses are heightened), really amps up the tensity with its sharp use of creaks, thumps and nerve-shattering silences.

Penned by Alvarez and co-writer Rodo Sayagues — who previously collaborated on the screenplay for 2013’s Evil Dead remake — Don’t Breathe is not your typical home invasion romp. The characters are beautifully drawn and highly complex (the film’s dour tone reflected in our ‘protagonists’) and while somewhat archetypal, each character subverts (and toys with) the very idea of what it means to be ‘good’ or ‘bad’ — one minute you’ll be rooting for the dishonorable crooks, the next for their adversary, a former war veteran who’d lost his sight fighting in the Gulf … well, that’s up until the flick’s big (and nasty) revelation drops.

They say 'Justice is Blind.'
They say ‘Justice is Blind.’

Teaming up with Alvarez for a second outing, Jane Levy — having formerly played the demonically possessed Mia in Evil Dead — embodies small-time thief Rocky, a woman who desperately yearns for a better life (away from her stagnant existence), this next smash-and-grab possibly being her last. The talented Levy (who’s becoming a modern-day scream-queen of sorts) rises to the challenge and totally sells the physicality and emotional side of the role, rendering the turbulent ordeal’s believably whilst making Rocky likeable (somebody patrons can actually empathize with), even when her selfishness and greed take charge. Dylan Minnette, Prisoners (2013), is solid as Alex, the unwitting architect and ‘voice of reason’ of the cluster, the 19-year-old fashioning a multifaceted character — Alex is cautious when pinching keys and alarm codes from his security-guard father (‘no cash and no big-ticket items’ he says), but his palpable crush on Rocky and sympathy for her plight causes his moral compass to waver. And rounding up the threesome is Daniel Zovatto, It Follows (2014), who plays alpha-male Money, Rocky’s impetuous, street-savvy boyfriend, the dude who more-or-less holds the dubious gang together.

Ultimately, however, it’s Stephen Lang, Avatar (2009), who really steals the show as the nameless ‘Blind Man,’ an intimidating and terrifying introvert (complete with his very own tragic backstory) whose concrete build and sheer relentlessness more than compensate for his lack of eyesight, the brute harboring a horrifying secret within his yellow brick walls. Lang’s (mostly) non-verbal performance is electrifying, the veteran actor creating a new breed of cruel and callous boogieman, slowly unveiling the monster’s unstable energy and sheer derangement, the Blind Man distilling a presence of terror that permeates through the air even when he’s nowhere in sight. And oh, let’s just say that there’s also a menacing Rottweiler (the Blind Man’s ferocious dog) that won’t easily be forgotten either.

Do You Want to Play a Game?
Do You Want to Play a Game?

With a frenzied pace and dicey twists and turns, Don’t Breathe will certainly keep viewers on the edge of their seats, even if the film does lack plausibility in parts — for someone with impaired vision, the Blind Man can sure do a helluva lot. Bar its questionable opening sequence — which potentially reveals too much too early on — Fede Alvarez’s Don’t Breathe is an unyielding and exhausting cinematic thrill ride, one that incessantly taps into the most primal of human fears. Mean, lean and pretty dang gripping, Don’t Breathe is sure to get you trembling … then leave you gasping for air.

4 / 5 – Recommended

Reviewed by S-Littner

Don’t Breathe is released through Sony Pictures Australia