Rating in Stars: *** (out of ****)
Cast: Jane Levy, Stephen Lang, Dylan Minnette, Daniel Zovatto
Director: Fede Alvarez
MPAA Rating: R (for terror, violence, disturbing content, and language throughout including sexual references)
Running Time: 1:28
Release Date: 08/26/16
There is a lot to commend in Don’t Breathe, a compact thriller that seeks to perform a volte-face on the home-invasion movie. Here we are asked to sympathize with the intruders, who form a trio of protagonists, specifically with regard to their victim, here positioned as the antagonist. For the first hour, the screenplay by Rodo Ayagues and director Fede Alvarez essentially splits the difference. We understand the motivations of the intruders, for whom the burglary represents the only method by which they might escape their current living situation. We empathize with the victim, who is blind, presumably divorced or widowed, grieving father to a girl who died in a car accident, and a veteran of the Gulf War, the well-documented effects of which are more than likely at the center of this man’s sad existence.
The film, then, seeks to apply all of this emotional baggage to a horror exercise, and it’s an effective one, not least because of how Alvarez and cinematographer Pedro Luque navigate the geography of the centerpiece house. It rests in a deserted suburb of Detroit, a canny decision on the parts of screenwriters who understand that much of this story’s impact will come from the fact that there is no one for miles around. The house is in shabby condition but kept well-maintained by its owner. The number of rooms in the house suggests a once-happier life, poisoned, perhaps, by years of grief and neglect. The basement, though, is another matter entirely.
What (or who) might reside in that basement is a question answered almost the moment the halfway mark of the film is reached, but I’m getting ahead of myself. The set-up is terrific, especially as we are introduced to the three anti-protagonists. In descending order of moral clarity, there is Alex (Dylan Minnette), the son of the man who runs the security company that provides the locks to houses he burgles with two others; he spends the majority of the film questioning the escalating legal circumstances of this particular burglary. Rocky (Jane Levy) has survived a terrible childhood with a disengaged, oft-abusive mother, only to see her younger sister faced with the same possible childhood; her wish is to escape to California. Money (Daniel Zovatto) is Rocky’s boyfriend, who proposes they hit this particular home, believing it to hold $300,000 from a legal settlement.
We never learn the name of the blind man whom they target, but it’s really of no enormous consequence to the director and his co-writer, nor does it seem to be of great importance to Stephen Lang, an actor whose performance here is heavily focused on the man’s physicality. Lang is convincing enough that the man’s blindness never doesn’t seem like a lack of sight (Think of the many actors who treat physical handicaps as having a built-in toggle switch and know that this is not one of those instances), and his swift gait as he moves inexorably forward is downright unsettling. A lot of the film rests on believing this man poses a threat, and on that front, it is very effective.
What (or who) resides in the basement is also important, though it would be criminal to reveal anything further. What I can reveal is that the cloudy morality of the final act is troubling, particularly in a scene that hinges upon a threat of sexual domination seemingly for the thrill of it and muddies whatever might follow it. Alvarez also interrupts his solid method with some narrative silliness (An extended sequence involving the man’s foaming, growling dog is marred by obvious fakery), but it matters little in the long run. Don’t Breathe is a crafty thriller for so long that a recommendation in spite of such hiccups is easy to make.