Don’t Breathe is quite the experience. It’s being touted as a return to form for the horror genre, and while it’s certainly memorable, tense, and well-acted, there’s a fine line between well-earned praise and overhype, and the promotion of this film may have already crossed that event horizon.
The film follows Rocky (Jane Levy), Alex (Dylan Minnette), and Money (Daniel Zovatto, of the strangely similar It Follows, but more on that in a moment), three Detroit teenagers whose varying levels of desperation to get out of their dying city lead them to theft. Using Alex’s father’s private security company connections to get in and out of homes without setting off any alarms, the trio land on the idea of robbing the home of a blind military veteran (Stephen Lang) who was given a large civil settlement when the daughter of a rich family was found not guilty of vehicular manslaughter of his only child. Once they make their way inside, they find that the Blind Man is more than they bargained for, and is hiding secrets that they could not have imagined.
I went into the film mostly blind, for lack of a better term. I knew very little about the plot from the outset other than that the film was supposed to be the best horror flick of the year, and I was expecting something along the lines of an inverted Wait Until Dark. I was also excited in the very first scene, as it reminded me of Hans Weingartner’s 2004 flick The Edukators, of which I am a big fan. The film quickly shifted tone, however, and although there are elements of Wait Until Dark at play here (most notably in a scene in which a blind individual turns off all of the lights to put themselves on equal footing with the people invading their home), this is a very different film.
We recently discussed in the roundtable for our September MotM outing The Box that it was hard to sympathize with the protagonist family and their need for more income because of their relative place of privilege, and Don’t Breathe is certainly more identifiable on that front, but the characters never quite reach a point where we can fully sympathize with them. The only main character of color, Money (Zovatto is Costa Rican), is the least fleshed out and has the least characterization; his character is the least likable of the three mains, and Zovatto seems to be playing an exaggerated version of the same sleazeball he played in It Follows. Further, Don’t Breathe seems to take place in the same alternate universe Detroit as It Follows, by which I mean both films are nearly devoid of black people. It’s understandable that director Fede Alvarez chose not to cast actors of color for these roles; having black actors play Detroit thieves would have unfortunate implications of their own, but since I only counted two extras of color (one in the overhead flyby at the start of the film and one getting coffee at the station at the end), there’s a lot of missed opportunity here. The film effectively portrays Detroit as a dying city with homes full of broken windows and empty streets, but focusing on the economic problems of (mostly) white teenagers creates an incorrect perception both of the city’s real problems and of the people who are usually victims of economic inequality.
The scene we see of Rocky’s family (including the deadbeat mother’s unsubtly swastika-tattooed boyfriend) attempts to communicate in a very short time frame the reasons why Rocky so dearly desires to leave Detroit behind, but it’s a little clumsy in its overtones and fails in comparison to a later scene where Alex talks about her childhood in a much more effective demonstration. And we learn the least about Alex, except that he seems to have a fairly decent home life, and his investment in the thefts is largely because of his romantic interest in Rocky, which the film never states is either problematic or loving. It’s also not the only problematic thing in the film other than the whitewashed Detroit, as there is a scene near the end that uses the ol’ rape-as- drama cliche, although not in the way you would expect. It’s effectively unsettling, but I’m not sure if the “I’m no rapist” line is meant to show off the blind (sorry) self-deception of the character saying it or an attempt to head off any attempted interpretation of the line (which it obviously has not, based on some of the think pieces emerging in the wake of the film’s release). I’m hesitant to say more than that for the sake of retaining the film’s surprises. It’s enough to sour the experience somewhat but not enough for me to say the film should be skipped, although I definitely recommend a big trigger warning for those viewers sensitive to sexual assault.
Even with all of its flaws, Don’t Breathe is a delightfully wicked and taut horror thriller with great influences from other films in the same genre and outside of it. Beyond the “blind person fends off home invaders” similarities to Wait Until Dark and the superficial similarities to The Edukators, there’s a lot of The People Under the Stairs in Don’t Breathe’s DNA (minus that film’s exploration of the race-related nature of economic disadvantage, which, as noted, is lacking here). There are also minor elements that are reminiscent of this year’s earlier horror film 10 Cloverfield Lane, particularly in one of the fake-out endings and the scene of a woman climbing through an air vent in a desperate escape attempt (this scene is also evocative of my favorite horror film, Alien, from which 10 Cloverfield borrowed some of its imagery). Alvarez’s beautiful cinematography and lingering camera work elevate what could otherwise have been a fairly run-of- the-mill horror movie. There’s an attention to detail that bespeaks a greater knowledge of the language of film, and Alvarez is obviously well on his way to being a master linguist. I can’t remember the last time, other than The VVitch, where I felt so much tension in my spine while taking in a fright flick, and I was haunted by the movie for hours after walking out of the theatre. If you have a strong stomach and can handle the anxiety, Don’t Breathe gets a“recommended” from me.
-Mark “Boomer” Redmond