Movie Review: “Don’t Breathe” is the shot of schlock you didn’t know you needed in your life.
The crowd that I saw “Don’t Breathe” with was probably the perfect audience for it. They hollered and gasped at all the right moments, and there were even a handful of intervals where I could hear applause. That is, after all, pretty much the only reasonable reaction to this stupendously stupid and unreasonably enjoyable new horror film directed by up-and-comer Fede Alvarez, which takes some of tropes from your standard home-invasion thriller and gives them a nasty, gut-punch twist. As far as high art goes, it’s not much. As far as high concept goes, it doesn’t get much better.
I first became aware of the name Fede Alvarez when I saw that he directed 2013’s souped-up, turbocharged remake of Sam Raimi’s seminal cabin-in-the-woods creepfest “The Evil Dead”. I wasn’t big on Alvarez’s viscera-drenched reimagining but to be fair, I would have been unhappy with just about anything. “The Evil Dead” is one of those rare, perfect movies that just shouldn’t be remade by anybody, and I thought Alvarez, in spite of the remake’s weaknesses (bad acting, reliance on jump-scares) displayed an assured and at times wickedly diabolical directorial hand. He also paid earnest tribute to Raimi’s masterful freakshow — a graceful move from a young horror maestro who was having the baton passed down to him.
Having now seen “Don’t Breathe,” I feel fairly confident saying that it won’t be long until Alvarez makes a genuinely great, maybe even iconic horror movie. “Don’t Breathe” is a big improvement over “The Evil Dead” in every way and it turns what could have been groaningly predictable in the hands of a less inspired director into something with the sadistic appeal of a grindhouse cheapie. Unlike the tepid output of Platinum Dunes, who turn outsider horror like “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” into a slick geek show spectacle, or the increasingly cynical and desperate “Purge” movies, “Don’t Breathe” is a movie that is very, very serious about its fucked up-ness. Softies and snobs can check their attitudes at the door. Gorehounds, horror mavens and lovers of trash cinema will gobble it up like Thanksgiving dinner.
The set-up for “Don’t Breathe” is ruthlessly efficient. Rocky (Jane Levy), Alex (Dylan Minnette) and Money (Daniel Zovatto and yes, for real, his character’s name is Money) are three petty criminals who live in Detroit and make ends meet by breaking into houses to steal whatever they can get their hands on. Sometimes the houses are abandoned, casualties of Detroit’s ongoing urban collapse. Others are secured by a company owned by Alex’s father: a nifty bit of narrative providence that allows our characters to try and sell back what they’ve stolen. Unfortunately, they don’t get much, which is especially problematic for Rocky, who yearns to escape from her toxic home life and move to California with her much younger sister. Rocky is the only of the three characters in “Don’t Breathe” who has any sort of inner life at all — which is just as well, since she’s this movie’s version of the archetypical Horror Girl. Levy has a wonderfully expressive face and she sells every note of the character’s authentic sense of desperation in the face of ever-mounting lunacy. She was a bright spot in Alvarez’s “Evil Dead” remake as well, and I wouldn’t be surprised if we start seeing her pop up in more interesting, non-horror related projects.
Anyway, at some point, Money — a dunderheaded bad boy who’s inarguably the most rotten and obnoxious member of our central trio — brings what he believes to be a potential big score to his friend’s attention. It’s a house in an abandoned ghost town of a neighborhood, owned by a onetime army veteran (played by Stephen Lang, of “Mahnhunter” and “Avatar”) with over $300,000 stashed in a deposit safe. The catch? The vet is blind, though he’s also armed with a snarling, vicious dog and, big surprise, some heavy-duty firepower, too. Of course, our heroes do break in, but nothing goes according to plan and it’s not long before the blind man has turned the tables on his terrorizers. To spoil any more would be to ruin some of the movie’s yucky surprises, but let’s just say that there’s a particularly gross reveal in the third act that the Farrelly brothers would undoubtedly approve of.
Really, “Don’t Breathe” is a familiar exercise played tight to the vest and smart as a whip. The movie also displays a welcome and admirable respect for its audience within the confines of the genre it is bound to. We are given three horror movies types (a hot, smart girl, a dumb lug who is destined to die early and horribly and a sweet nerd who will later prove himself) find themselves being hunted in a contained space and try to maneuver/kill their way out. This is where Alvarez goes all buck-wild with the set pieces, including a genuinely brilliant sequence where the electricity goes out in the house’s dank basement and we get to see a thrilling on-foot chase sequence unfold in inky, smeary black-and-white night vision. It’s the kind of subtle touch that amplifies the mood of a scene in a new and unexpected way: we see the demonic whites of Lang’s eyes pop just so, and a flashlight becomes less a tool of survival than a luminous beacon cutting through a forbidding sea of black.
That said, anyone with an aversion to cliché and contrivance might want to skip “Don’t Breathe” and I don’t know, maybe check out Werner Herzog’s new documentary? This is a dumb movie, and proud of it, and while it’s ultimately too much fun to ride the movie’s sicko wave instead of complaining about plot holes and logical inconsistencies, I feel as though I’ve been enthusiastic in my endorsement of the movie, and I’d just like to say that I do not believe that “Don’t Breathe” is by any means some kind of new horror classic in the vein of “It Follows”. Rather, it is a simple, familiar and effective spin on the home invasion formula that adds a few grisly spikes to the punch. Levy and Lang are both rock-solid, though my friend and writing partner noted that Lang sounds an awful lot like Christopher Walken doing Bane from “The Dark Knight Rises,” and he’s… not wrong. If this kind of big, goofy gesture makes you grit your teeth, you might want to wait until this one hits VOD. But those among us who crave good trash will get their fix and, as I said, the movie just fucking works: from its tense, coiled early moments to its spectacularly disgusting third act.
Man, that third act twist. I don’t want to give it away, because anyone who is going to see this movie should go in cold and not knowing what to expect. Also, it’s not the type of thing that really alters the course of the plot in one way or another. It’s just so damn… deranged. It’s the sign that Alvarez is a real midnight movie fanatic and not just some competent studio hack. Sensitive viewers may wince, gag or head for the exits when this twist is revealed. The audience I saw it with practically gave it a standing ovation. Take that however you wish to. B.