by Philip Price
“Don't Breathe,” the new horror/thriller from director Fede Alvarez, opens with a distant shot of what looks to be a deserted street. Only later do we find out this is one of the more run down sections of Detroit where time and humanity have left everything behind that might have once thrived there. As the camera gets closer to the street we can see there is someone walking down the middle of it. The camera continues to zoom in slowly-we can tell that someone is dragging something down the road behind them. A little closer. They are dragging another person. A little closer. It's a girl who is either dead or unconscious -- it's difficult to tell and we will remain unsure as the screen then cuts to black. It's a killer opening shot that clearly points to a moment that is to come later in the film, but with its placement at the beginning Alvarez has already enticed his audience to how we might get to this point and whether that shot indicates the end of the line or not. It's a trick that has been used before and will certainly be used again, but every now and then it feels especially inherent to the story being told and “Don't Breathe” feels like an instance where this isn't only a tool to lure the unsuspecting (or suspecting if you bought a ticket, I mean c'mon) audience member into the intrigue of what exactly is going on, but instead this is a choice that lets those audience members (suspecting or not) know up front that Alvarez means to make you question things, to make you pull your knees up to your chin and grit your teeth because you feel so tense. This isn't simply a hook, but an indication of the type of terror the characters we'll come to know are capable of and this is all accomplished in the first 30 or so seconds so one can only imagine what sitting through 90 minutes of such adept perception of what makes people uncomfortable and afraid might be like. In only his second feature film the Uruguay-born director delivers a horror film that, much like his previous movie, contains itself to an isolated location, but only continues to raise the stakes and use that space in inventive and chilling ways. Save for something of a lackluster middle section where, for a moment, the film feels as if it runs out of both steam and ideas for where exactly to take the story and its characters, the film is a tightly scripted and well-performed fright night that finds its footing well enough to redeem itself and pull the cautious viewers back to the side of rooting for whoever gains the most of their sympathy.
In essence, “Don't Breathe” is a three-person show. The film begins with the aforementioned shot then proceeds to establish each of these main players while simultaneously giving reason as to why they're in the position they're in and more or less why we should feel sorry for them. There is Rocky (Jane Levy) a poor girl dreaming of the good life whose mother may as well treat her as if she doesn't exist, but who she counts on to take care of her younger daughter Diddy (Emma Bercovici). Rocky is determined to get out of Detroit and take her younger sister with her. Rocky plans on accomplishing as much by making what seem to be the same mistakes as her mother by dating a guy who calls himself Money (Daniel Zovatto). Money is a white guy with corn rows so I'm sure you can pick up on what type of character this guy is pretty quick. Alvarez and his co-writer Rodo Sayagues save the one-dimensions and anticipated audience vitriol for this guy. He's the scumbag that orchestrates the robberies -- finding the targets, scoping out the security system and selling the stolen items for money -- while all the while remaining something of an idiot. We don't like Money from the start and that's the point. We like Alex (Dylan Minnette) as he's the love struck puppy who would do anything for Rocky even going so far as to put his father's security company on the line for a couple of bucks and Rocky's potential affection. And so, there's the girl longing for the better life and the boy longing for the girl that will make his life better with the only issue being the spawn of Alien from “Spring Breakers” totally messing everything up. It is when Alien Jr. gets a tip about an old retired vet (Stephen Lang) living in a deserted neighborhood who happens to be sitting on $300,000 after a settlement with the drunk driver that killed his daughter that the "one last job" coup comes up. Alex is hesitant as he doesn't like to steal cash and only a certain number of items so as not to cross a certain threshold for jail time, but Rocky can't help but see this as her big chance to solve all her problems in one swoop which, if you've seen any movie ever, you know never works out the way the character hopes. Money is of course down as it was his idea, but things only take a turn for the worse when the three burglars show up to the house, discover the man is also blind, and that he's not in the mood for their shenanigans.
It is in these characters that “Don't Breathe” finds its greatest strengths. Never do we feel as if either Rocky or Alex are bad people, but rather victims of bad circumstance. Still, they are in the wrong for the majority of the film which is an odd revelation because we are clearly meant to be rooting for them despite the fact they're robbing a blind war veteran who's lost a child. This sets the stage for when Lang's blind man actually enters the picture and begins retaliating against those that have violated his property. It is at this point we begin to contemplate exactly who we should be afraid of. For 40 or so minutes “Don't Breathe” operates as a purely contained thriller giving the audience a set-up with characters to care about and a mission they are absolutely unsure of -- the best way to create unease. When our protagonists enter the house Alvarez keeps things on high alert by lurking in the corners of rooms, never revealing the full scope of the location our characters are occupying. We feel bad for the blind man, but we're rooting for Rocky and Alex to succeed, escape with some of the money (they could at least leave the old guy a few stacks, right?) and live happily ever after. It is when Lang's character who isn't exactly positioned as the antagonist, but totally is, enters into the equation that we understand where he is coming from and, even though we're rooting for Alex and Rocky, don't have a problem with him doing what he feels necessary to protect himself as he's totally within his rights. This is interesting because horror flicks don't typically operate in muddy character waters. There is always a clearly defined enemy and a clearly defined group of people trying to evade that enemy. It isn't until after that 40-minute mark that “Don't Breathe” begins to reveal things about the blind man that muddies the difference in our two sets of characters even further while showing us they're more alike than we may have imagined. While the blind man was previously just the victim to a crime in which we hoped the robbers might succeed in some capacity it is at this point the film begins to reveal things about Lang's character that give cause for confusion and serious concern. It's something of an unexpected layer given we naturally expect there to be more to Lang's character, but not necessarily in the way Alvarez and Sayagues expand upon it. That said, this does set things up for a genuinely surprising third act twist that rejuvenates the slowing momentum and kicks the finale into high gear.
And so, a scary movie that delivers complex characters with hazy morals, but defined motivations -- what more could one ask for, right? Not much to be honest. “Don't Breathe” is a solid little horror flick that has a nifty script that includes cool touches like having the invaders take off their shoes to keep their presence quieter, but come around to bite them in a clever and suspenseful way. Alvarez, upon us first entering the blind man's house, takes us on a tour of the layout with a single long shot that moves through the geography of the location with an unsettling ease establishing what we need to know for the remainder of the showdown to make sense. There are little details like the outline of a cross that once hung over the blind man's bed that is no longer there that foreshadows a certain, singular speech made by the character and other touches including a personal account from Rocky about a trunk and a lady bug that come full circle in two separate instances to push the momentum of the movie forward when it requires it most. Not to mention, Lang gives a largely wordless performance, but is insanely intimidating and unpredictable solely through the expressions conveyed by his eyebrows and defeated posture. It's clear life has beaten this guy down and thus he gains our sympathy despite turning out to be a truly twisted antagonist. In short, there is a lot to like. The shortcomings only arrive in small doses of what feel like slight inconsistencies in the plotting and aforementioned missteps in pacing during the end of the second act/beginning of the third that slow the adrenaline the movie has created in both its characters and audience. There is one glaring scene in which Alex and Rocky are cornered in an upstairs bedroom and can't get out of any of the windows because they are either barred or boarded up. Rocky begins to escape through the ventilation shafts while Alex is left to stave off the blind man and his vicious dog that is beating down the door. The dog breaks through and ultimately tosses Alex through a window we were led to assume was too tough to be broken. It's nothing major and there is likely a reasonable explanation, but it immediately gives way to the feeling the screenwriters were beginning to resort to more convoluted ways of keeping the protagonists within this contained environment. It doubles back on a couple of things too many times and probably goes on a scene too long.
But by its genre terms and what we've come to expect from horror films in late August, this very much delivers on its promise of a thrilling/white-knuckle experience where you'll definitely be holding your breathe.