DON’T BREATHE Review
Director: Fede Alvarez
Fede Alvarez is two for two. Jumping off of the surprisingly potent remake of THE EVIL DEAD, the director has found himself putting out an original horror film of his own, with Sam Raimi acting in a producing capacity no less. With DON’T BREATHE, summer audiences have been treated to one of the most delightful horror-thrillers in years, tracking the action-packed night in which three burglars decide to rob a psychopathic blind man’s home. And while its premise sounds easy, the execution is anything but.
In 1991, Wes Craven released THE PEOPLE UNDER THE STAIRS, an ingenious little horror film about a young burglar who finds himself at odds when he decides to rob the wrong home. DON’T BREATHE follows many of the same trappings as Craven’s oft overlooked classic. But dare I say Alvarez improves on the formula? Where Craven’s film relegated it’s absurd scenario to camp, DON’T BREATHE is shockingly convincing. Alvarez never stretches my faith in this blind man’s capacity to stop our three heroes, and with that he builds thrillingly imaginative set pieces that don’t rely on the absurd.
Sometimes he holds his breath in the hallway. Then he holds his breath in the bathroom. It’s CRAZY!
The magic of DON’T BREATHE is that it’s an action film through and through, filled to the brim with brilliant reversals and trope subversions. It’s a film that elegantly establishes world rules, and pays them off by piecemeal. This is action directing at its finest, and while you might ask yourself why DON’T BREATHE isn’t exactly scary, it becomes patently obvious that Alvarez’s primary intention is to build tension, choke his audience with a vicelike grip, and never let go. And boy does he succeed.
Furthermore, lead actors Jane Levy, Dylan Minnette and Daniel Zovatto do a fantastic job at being unsympathetic, but deeply understandable characters. Since Alvarez clearly paints Levy as the film’s protagonist, we get enough backstory so that we empathize with a 20-something that’s driven to a life of crime. Her co-stars don’t get the same treatment, but their interactions with one another indicate towards similar domestic struggles. The fact that Alvarez opts out of an ensemble cast, relegating most of the film to a two-on-one match, increases the stakes here. Naturally, this results in significantly less raw horror, but stays true to the film’s title in the realm of tension.
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But Alvarez’s greatest accomplishment is perhaps how elegantly he crafts his elaborate game of hide-and-seek. Like a visceral match of Marco Polo, characters try their hardest to keep quiet, leaving the audience teetering on the edge of their seats, anxiously anticipating the next character’s slip up. And that’s the genius here: Alvarez is concerned with individuals making mistakes, not people outsmarting one another. Where DON’T BREATHE could have easily been an R-rated version of HOME ALONE, building towards a climax in which our heroes lay nails on the floor in order to defeat their blind enemy, it is instead a film about mistakes. People die because they screw up, and people succeed because others screw up. Violence is messy. Alvarez knows that, and similar to this year’s GREEN ROOM, this is a film about all the ways characters fail when they are fighting for dear life.
In fact, Jeremy Saulnier’s siege-film is the most comparable experience to Alvarez’ thriller. This is not a horror film that’s meant to get under your skin. This is a thriller that seeks to strap you into one Hell of a rollercoaster, leaving you bewildered by the level of expertise with which every narrative beat is built. You see, DON’T BREATHE doesn’t feel like a traditional horror film. Scenes don’t obviously segue from exposition-sequence to jump-scare beats. Instead, this is a 90-minute version of JURASSIC PARK’s “don’t move” scene. And frankly, it’s brilliant.
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While there are certainly brief beats in the action that feel imperfect – a character falls out of a window right after he makes an observation that all the windows are barred, and the film could have ended earlier for the sake of leaving the viewers with an already satisfying revenge scene – every complaint I could utter against DON’T BREATHE is nullified when considering that Alvarez has delivered one of the most visceral, entertaining thrillers in years. As I looked left and right in the movie theater, I saw viewers squirming, clenching, cheering, laughing and panting at the edge of their seats, and I realized that this is what cinema is all about. Surely, Robert Eggers’ THE WITCH and Babak Anvari’s UNDER THE SHADOW are more elegant, innovative horror films, but this is a perfection of everything viewers could want from a B-movie formula, and with that, DON’T BREATHE confidently presides as one of the best releases of 2016.