Directed by Fede Alvarez
Festival-goers were in for quite a treat upon settling in for Fede Alvarez’s follow-up to his Evil Dead remake, which kicked off the 30th annual SXSW Music, Film and Interactive Conferences and Festivals in Austin, Texas. Screening to audiences who had very limited knowledge of what to expect, Don’t Breathe was allowed to play to maximum effect the first time out; slick and unrelenting, Alvarez’s sophomore effort solidifies the director as a fierce genre talent to be reckoned with.
The plot of Don’t Breathe is quite simply set up: Three young burglars — Alex (Minnette), Rocky (Levy), and Money (Daniel Zovatto) — plan to break into the home of a blind military veteran (Lang) to steal a large sum of money he recently inherited from a lawsuit settlement. Initially, all seems to be going according to plan, primarily due to the fact that Alex’s father works for a security company; but soon the three unsuspecting thieves are met with the reality that they may have gotten in way over their heads. Ultimately thrust into a fight for survival, the lines of villain and victim fast become blurred as the night grows longer and truths about the blind man begin to rush to the surface.
Though it bears a rather uninspired title fit for a made-for-TV thriller and wears the trappings of a familiar home invasion tale, Don’t Breathe is anything but predictable. The story begins simply enough in its basic premise, but the gradual twists and turns that the Alvarez- and Rodo Sayagues-penned script throws at the audience come hard and fast. There are more than a few moments here that simultaneously inspire audible gasps and groans of discomfort (in the best way, I assure you), and fans of Alvarez’s Evil Dead will be pleased to find that many of the brutal sensibilities that permeated that film find their way into the veins of Don’t Breathe as well. Without saying much more about the plot, the story here provides both a very stressful and joyfully cathartic viewing experience as far as genre thrill rides go.
Visually, I was struck most immediately by Alvarez’s ability to create an expansive horror-house of a world within such a confined setting; the home of the blind man is not massive in scope, but Alvarez and cinematographer Pedro Luque somehow manage to transform every room, hallway, doorway, and window into threatening, often claustrophobic fixtures. Alvarez also utilizes some very creative stylistic techniques to vary the action throughout the film, particularly in the second half; there is one particular set piece in the basement of the home that will no doubt be talked about — and lauded — by viewers and critics alike for its novel approach. His skillful manipulation of light and dark, and ultimately sight and blindness, makes for a wholly engrossing viewing experience that is just downright remarkable in execution at points.
Don’t Breathe’s criminals-turned-victims all deliver very sound performances here, each one seeking to score big with this perfect crime for their own personal motivations. Levy once again shines with Alvarez at the helm, enduring the worst of the physical violence and wild sequences like an absolute trooper and proving to be a worthy match for Lang’s chillingly merciless villain. Zovatto and Minnette each also hold their own, the latter particularly doing well to continue shedding his pretty boy facade in a role that equally requires significant physical resilience. Some may find the characters to be less explicitly developed than preferred, but given the nature of Don’t Breathe‘s driving plot and the focus on meticulously choreographed sequences to generate tension, I never found this to be much of a detraction from the main draw of the film. If anything, I would say that the initial introduction to the characters and the lead-in to the real action could stand to be cut down just a bit.
In the end, Don’t Breathe is a claustrophobic thrill ride that progressively ramps up the tension until you can’t bear it any longer, boasting more than a few nail-biting sequences that are sure to be buzzed about by horror fans and non-genre followers alike. Alvarez ultimately succeeds with his first wholly original story from tonal, technical, and stylistic standpoints, truly proving his skill here as a master behind the camera through a meticulously brutal tale of suspense that would make even Hitchcock squirm.