I went into Don’t Breathe feeling it was already a breath of fresh air.
By the looks and sound of things, there wasn’t a demon in sight… Nothing supernatural, nothing with religious undertones; just plain psychological horror driven by people in a game of survival.
Not that I don’t like supernatural horror – The Conjuring 2 was great once I got past its uninspired title, while The Witch was a refreshingly original stylistic take on the genre – but one can’t deny it’s been the default for generic Western studio horror movies in recent years.
More accurately, I should state this kind of horror is inspired predominantly by Christianity in the West – demons, the devil, etc. – and it’s that aspect which I find over-exploited. I am otherwise a big fan of supernatural horror outside of that context – when it takes cues from other cultural viewpoints, as we see in Asian horror for example. I bring up this issue now not only because it relates to part of the reason I liked Don’t Breathe, but also because it’s a discussion I’ll revisit in my review for another impressive horror movie I watched in the past few days.
To focus on the film at hand, Don’t Breathe follows three morally questionable, borderline unlikable characters who make a living by breaking into homes and selling the items they steal.
These three are the closest thing we have to protagonists, although the film quickly makes clear that two of the three will have a more interesting arc than the third. One of them, Rocky (played by Jane Levy), is taking part in these illicit activities so she can fund a move to California with her little sister to get away from an abusive mother and her new boyfriend.
The second, Alex (Dylan Minnette), provides the three with access to the homes they rob by taking advantage of his father’s occupation at a security company – though he feels some measure of guilt over it. While the third, Money (Daniel Zovatto) is not given the privilege of such a backstory; leading one to imagine, with good reason as it turns out, that he is the least important – and least likable – of the three central characters.
From this angle the film lacks substance; there’s really not much more of interest about the three characters than that. It’s only when we get to the fourth, the film’s “antagonist” (again, he has a somewhat sympathetic backstory), that this movie hits its stride.
Rocky, Alex and Money decide to rob the house of a blind war veteran after learning that he has $300,000 in cash stashed in it. Remaining unnamed, this character is known only as the ‘Blind Man’ – played by Stephen Lang who is undoubtedly the star of the film. As a former Army veteran, his character is unsurprisingly a badass who, despite his blindness, proves more than a match for the three intruders.
There is a certain pleasure in seeing two groups face off who would otherwise both be considered antagonists in a different story. We’ve seen it done before; when, for example, big franchises such as Alien and Predator collide to make what should be an amazing experience, but usually end up disappointing. Don’t Breathe is of course more down to earth, dealing with issues we can to some extent relate to, and the Blind Man’s ailment adds to the intrigue.
While this setting could have easily led to nothing more than a bunch of jump scares (the most annoying habit of Western horror), they’re refreshingly absent here. Instead the film boasts an impressive sense of atmosphere, as the experience turns into a cat-and-mouse chase with both sides fishing for an advantage. Director Fede Alvarez gets the most out of the limited space available to him; the house in which we spend most of the movie isn’t exactly large, and we end up covering almost every corner of it.
This tension-filled portion of the movie is the strongest element of it, and thankfully it makes up the majority of the experience. To this extent Don’t Breathe was the breath of fresh air I had been hoping for, and the simple ambiguity surrounding the character of the Blind Man – who is, after all, only defending his property from intruders, which goes some way to justifying his aggressiveness – was equally refreshing. Unfortunately, though, it doesn’t last for the whole film.
Don’t Breathe is, in the end, still an America horror movie. One of the better ones of recent years for sure, but a couple of bad habits crept in during the film’s finale that slightly spoilt it for me.
First, they felt the need to provide what was a somewhat flimsy reason for the Blind Man’s actions. I won’t spoil it, but there are a couple of lines of dialogue towards the end in which he goes into a monologue that harkens back to the ‘Christianised’ aspect of Western horror mentioned above.
It’s as if someone – whether it was the original scriptwriter or a producer – felt a need to pad his ‘evil’ actions for the viewer who always likes a movie to teach a moral lesson. This is a habit inherent in American movies in particular, that is not so often seen elsewhere.
Yes, this is partly a matter of personal taste, but it also shows a lack of originality in the writing – seen too in the thin backstories provided for the three other characters – that wasn’t there in the style of directing.
The other issue I had with Don’t Breathe was its ending… Rather, its choice to have an ending after the ending. This was a film that didn’t necessarily need a resolution. And it felt like they made the choice not to have that, only to change their minds later and insert a final scene that partially leaves the door open for some direct-to-DVD sequel down the line.
Ultimately this is a film that should be applauded for its ideas, a tense atmosphere and memorable performance from Stephen Lang, but one that comes tainted by occasionally falling back on the overdone staples of Hollywood cinema.
7 / 10