Let me open my review of Fede Alvarez’s Don’t Breathe by quoting the great “Football Announcer” from Not Another Teen Movie – “Wham! Bam! What the FUCK just happened!”
It’s been three years since Alvarez shocked audiences with his *in my opinion* tremendous Evil Dead “remake.” Three LONG years without Alvarez’s unique, effortlessly flowing vision. But, he’s finally back, and ready to torment audiences with a more personal thriller that boasts insane bouts of relentless break-in-turned-break-out tension. Once Alvarez and co-writer Rodo Sayagues are able to navigate through a glossed-over setup, shades of 10 Cloverfield Lane shock through the characters’ claustrophobic survival strategies and a dominating antagonistic performance from a lean, and mean, Stephen Lang. I’ve had an entire night’s sleep since my screening, and honestly, I’m still catching my breath.
Dylan Minnette stars as Alex, a Detroit kid who earns extra cash by robbing clients of his father’s security company, with help from his crush Rocky (Jane Levy) and her boyfriend, Money (Daniel Zovatto). By keeping their scores under 10K, Alex is able to ensure his father’s job remains safe, but news of a well-off hermit threatens bigger stakes. Alex balks at risking everything on a gigantic payday, but then learns their possible target is completely blind, and he can’t turn down an assumedly easy jackpot. Unfortunately, the team’s assumptions are wholly incomplete, as the blind man (Stephen Lang) is also an ex-militant who fights back against his intruders. So much for a smash-and-grab quickie…
The first ten or so minutes of Don’t Breathe are a complete write-off here – Alex’s motivations are never truly fleshed out beyond his crush on Rocky, nor is his father-son relationship ever explored. We can only assume three impoverished children attempt to escape the Motor City’s dilapidated hopelessness by robbing rich people blind, and for the action present, that reveals itself to be enough. Once The Blind Man locks up his fortress with the underaged burglars inside, Alex’s plan goes south real quick, especially when they become weaponless.
Once Alvarez confronts his characters with a point of no return, intensity ramps, and tension boils over. There’s nothing complicated about Don’t Breathe, as a blind man and his dog fight against three Robin-Hood-like criminals in search of big money. But that doesn’t stop Alvarez’s muscular “victim” from being a teeth-gritting, face-busting badass whose heightened remaining senses make him a trigger-happy monster.
Whenever the camera panned out to show Lang standing stoically, reading his surroundings in search of Alex’s crew, my heart immediately stopped. The slightest noise would be picked up by Lang’s extremely sensitive hearing, and bullets would frantically start flying. Silence followed by chaos. In what’s essentially the deadliest game of silent Marco Polo, Alvarez is able to string together an abusive succession of self defense sequences that form one knock-out punch of brutal, fist-clenching terror.
Each pint-sized robber fills a stereotypical character arc in heist filmmaking, from Zovatto’s “homie with a gat” persona, to Minnette’s knight in shining armor routine. But, despite playing a recycled mother stealing for a better life, Levy proves to be a horrified female dynamo who becomes everything from a scared survivalist to an aggressive escapist. She conveys sincerity through tears, and perseverance through pain – another absolutely KILLER role for the young actress.
Levy is now two-for-two in Alvarez roles where her reaction to unspeakable events generates a steamrolling momentum on appearance alone, without even referencing her survivor girl mentality. Don’t Breathe isn’t a straight-laced horror excursion, but Levy’s performance is independently ferocious enough to make her a model final girl for our generation. Both her and Minnette are brutalized beyond comfort, thrown from windows and down shafts in the house’s framework, but Levy slays yet another performance that makes her shine first as a victim, and doubly as a fighter.
Lang, meanwhile, is a powerhouse as the blind gunman who only hopes to protect his home, money and secret basement surprise. Basement secret, you ask? Lang gets very protective of a cellar door that leads to a ladder, as he blindly chases the robbers through a maze of metal shelves and industrial equipment. This is where Alvarez gets creative, as Lang throws a main breaker so his trapped rats are forced to scurry helplessly around a pitch-black dungeon, since his entire life is darkness.
Glassy gazes project his cold, dead stare like soulless daggers as Alvarez uses a grey-scaled night-vision technique, and Lang’s prowess is reminiscent of Nick Damici’s role in Late Phases. Lang is everything you’d want from his blended father/psychopath personification. Authoritative and unpredictable. Vicious and vulnerable. He’s the “villain” you root against, but still feel a small, hidden sense of sympathy for, buried deep behind reason.
Don’t Breathe earns its place amongst genre thrillers for the basement blackout chase alone, but there’s so much more worth indulging in. Alvarez is back, and he kicks the freakin’ door down with his second feature. It took him a while, but it’s worth all the vent-crawling, breath-holding and blind-man-chasing ferocity. Tension is hard to come by, but Don’t Breathe has plenty to spare. Let’s just hope Alvarez is quicker to the gun on this next flick, because I don’t know if I can wait three more damn years for some more of this bleak, genre-bending goodness. Speed it up next time, eh?
Don't Breathe is a punch to the face, delivering everything you deem tense and thrilling. It's an adrenaline shot of genre-bending ferocity.
Don't Breathe Review [SXSW 2016]