From the Archives: Don’t Breathe review

From the Archives: Don’t Breathe review

In the interest of getting “hard” copies of my work under one roof, I plan to spend the next few weeks posting the entire archive of my film journalism here on ScullyVision. With due respect to the many publications I’ve written for, the internet remains quite temporary, and I’d hate to see any of my work disappear for digital reasons. As such, this gargantuan project must begin! I don’t want to do it. I hate doing it. But it needs to be done. Please note that my opinions, like everyone’s, have changed a LOT since I started, so many of these reviews will only represent a snapshot in time. Objectivity has absolutely no place in film criticism, at least not how I do it. 

Without further ado, I present to you: FROM THE ARCHIVES.
Originally posted on Cinema76.

If Fede Alvarez is the future of horror, I’m a happy camper. After his explosive debut in which he did the impossible – remake The Evil Dead – horrorhounds like myself were eager to see what the Uruguayan filmmaker would bring to the table next. Well next has arrived in the form of Don’t Breathe, a home invasion thriller that turns every trope on its ear in a fit of gleeful madness. A tense shocker that’s bubbling over with dread, violence, and just about every bodily fluid you can think of, Don’t Breathe delivers the type of movie that I forgot I needed; the type of movie that demands not just to be seen, but to be experienced.

This isn’t to say that it’s a film for everybody. The murky ethics and unrelenting pace are enough to send more squeamish viewers running for the door. But those of us who can handle (or even crave) such a thing are in for a treat. Alvarez has taken the single location thriller and transformed it into a maze of simple set-pieces that milk the central concept for all that it’s worth and then some.

Don’t Breathe subverts the tired home invasion formula by doing away with heroes and villains on the whole. Of the four main players, none are saddled with altruism. Rocky, Money, and Alex spend their free time breaking into empty homes to steal whatever they can get their hands on. They mostly play it safe, targeting only the houses which Alex’s father has sold a home security plan. This gives them access to keys and passcodes, and ensures a clean getaway. Alex is immediately the most sensible of the three, advising that they avoid stealing cash, and limit their take to a $10,000 maximum – keeping potential grand larceny charges at bay.

But when they come across a potential big score in the form of a lonely blind man in possession of a large sum of cash, they reluctantly decide to throw out the rules and make it their final job before leaving the slums of Detroit for good. As the Fast Fambly would say – one last ride. But as these things go, it turns out their mark, appropriately credited as “The Blind Man,” is much more formidable than they could have ever planned. To say more would be spoiling the fun, as there are more than a few deliciously morbid twists that serve to consistently raise the stakes and ratchet up the tension of this perfectly paced nightmare.


The reason this is all so compelling is the script, penned by Alvarez and longtime collaborator Rodo Sayagues which forgoes the standard morality play inherent in slasher films. None of our characters fit the standard roster of jock, slut, virgin, nerd, etc. As such, everybody becomes expendable. Anything can happen at any moment, which milks the tension in a way that’s similar to this year’s other great horror-thriller Green Room. The proceedings aren’t completely bereft of moral concern, however. Deep down there’s a meditation on the nature of greed and entitlement that contorts the audience’s allegiances regularly and with ice-cold abandon.

Alvarez’s camera gives a masterclass in cinematic geography, evocative of James Wan’s work in The Conjuring. Tracking shots and omniscient dips into the house’s internal construction keep us one step ahead of the protagonists and one step behind The Blind Man, creating an environment that is as contained as it is exposed. When the creak of a floorboard can mean life or death, it’s important that we as an audience can feel the dread in any permutation of wall/attacker/victim. It’s important that we can understand where the exits are and aren’t. It’s important that we have a sense of how trapped the characters are, or else the whole thing crumbles into a bland mess.

It’s also important that we know where The Blind Man keeps his tools.

The hero of the day, however, is Pedro Luque, whose cinematography muscles are flexed considerably. Before breaking into the home, one of our unfortunate thieves notes that even though the lights are off, it doesn’t mean their mark is asleep – he’s blind, he doesn’t need lights. As such, much of Don’t Breathe is in darkness, yet every shot still pops. There’s none of that “shoot in the light and darken it in post” malarkey that, once you notice it, doesn’t work. There’s even a scene in pitch blackness that uses a sort of night vision that not only captures total darkness in a digestible way, but adds a filter to the sequence that gives it an air of the supernatural. This has to be a cinematic first. Night-vision, as a rule, never works. Even Sicario couldn’t help but evoke John McTiernan’s Rollerball in that regard.

I only have one issue with the film, and it’s one that plagues way too many modern horror flicks. I can’t leave without saying it: Stop opening the film with a horrifying sequence from act three. Just stop. This fails to raise the tension 100% of the time. Anyone with even a modicum of brains knows that things are going to go sour – it’s a horror movie! You don’t need to telegraph it! It’s not as glaring a mistake here, given the myriad narrative turns the film eventually takes, but it does weaken a few of the moments by eliminating elements of surprise. It’s this exact device that renders a film like The Strangers completely inert before even the title card is shown. Stop it.

Outside of that complaint, I’m ready to jump on the train of calling Alvarez the future of horror. If his first two films are this strong, there’s no limit to what he can accomplish. If we can somehow get an anthology featuring him, Adam Wingard, and David Robert Mitchell, I’ll surely have died and gone to some twisted version of heaven.

But I won’t hold my breath.

Don’t Breathe opens in Philly theaters today.

Official site.

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