Don’t Breathe (dir.Fede Alvarez)

Posted: September 6, 2016 in Uncategorized

“Don’t Breathe” is a film version of a thrill ride, or perhaps a series of different rides at an amusement park. It essentially exists as a series of sequences of varying degrees of tension and suspense that mimic one would feel during the build up and release of tension on a rollercoaster, freefall, or any other number of rides you may enjoy going on. The film’s story is weak at times, but that only slightly hampers the enjoyment of what is otherwise a highly enjoyable film.

The film involves three people who break into a blind man’s house in order to steal a large amount of money that blind man was awarded in a law suit. The Blind Man (Stephan Lang), used to be in the military until a grenade explosion stole his eye sight and made him overly sensitive to loud noises. His daughter was killed by a rich girl who was drunk driving. When the film begins, he is living in a practically abandoned section of Detroit in a house that would be considered run down, except when surrounded with the decaying homes of Detroit it is the best house for miles by comparison. The film wastes no time getting us into that house and beginning the action of the film, which in other films would seem way too fast (there’s maybe only 10 minutes of set up) but in this film feels like it’s for the best because the set up is kind of shitty.

Our three protagonists are Money (Daniel Zovatto), a white gangsta-type guy who looks like a Die Antwoord reject; Rocky (Jane Levy), a girl who grew up abused by her mother in a trailer park and is looking to get her and her younger sister away from the life, and Alex (Dylan Minnette), who has a predictable crush on Rocky, even though Rocky and Money are inexplicably an item. Alex is the intellectual leader of the three, as he knows all of the laws pertaining to breaking and entering. His father runs a security company, and he steals the keys and security alarm codes from his father’s clients so that he and the other two protagonists can steal items to fence. You’d think a rash of break-ins that all have the same security company in common would raise police suspicions, or at the very least cause bad Yelp reviews for the company, but the film ignores this obvious flaw in their operation. In any case, the generally make sure all of their break-ins only steal items of a low enough monetary value as to not be a felony, but the desire for a big score and a chance to get out of Detroit is too large, and a blind man sitting on $300,000 seems too good to pass up.

So we have a decent basic concept with a really bad set up. Money is wholly unlikable, it makes no sense for Rocky to like him, and a smart, intelligent kid pining for the girl who inexplicably likes the bad boy has been done way too much at this point. Also, Rocky has many tattoos, but is given a weird scene where we find out she got a tiny ladybug tattoo and she says that after this score it will be the last time she ever marks her body. Why is she suddenly anti-tattoo? The film is also implicitly anti-tattoo by tying the desire to tattoo one’s body with childhood abuse, as the ladybug calls back to a time Rocky was a kid and left in a trunk for days with only a ladybug that could get inside to keep her company. Weird moralizing.

But then we get in the house, and the film works wonders for a while. We’re given the layout of the house in a virtuoso, unbroken steadicam shot that goes under beds, upstairs, through walls and floorboards, and is really impressive. The house isn’t in great shape, but it’s not the house in “Saw 2” either. At first, the Blind Man is asleep, but then he wakes up, one of our protagonists is killed by him, and he figures out there are two others in the house, and proceeds to batten down the hatches and lock up any means of escape. It’s not just a question of escaping, it’s also very important to Rocky that they leave WITH the stolen money. The difficulty becomes escaping the house with the money and their life intact. While the Blind Man doesn’t have any bullshit “heightened senses” from being blind, he still has intact military training, and is a surprising force to be reckoned with since he knows his house without visual aid, and the intruders barely know any of the house at all.

For most of the film, the Blind Man is a character you are pretty much on the side of…then we get a third act twist that is rather unexpected. The twist works and is very effective at switching your audience loyalty, but I couldn’t help but dislike the anti-Atheist message the twist brings up that comes out of nowhere in a film that, until that point, seems to have no comment to make about religion. Hell, despite being located in Detroit, the film makes little effort to have any political message either, and Detroit seems to function mainly as window dressing that serves as a convenient locale for this film’s story to take place in (no neighbors around). The anti-Atheist message isn’t as front and center as the one in “Prisoners”, but it’s fairly unmistakable (a later appearance in the film of a ladybug could be construed as being God). It’s a shame, because it’s also around this time that the film makes comments about how unfair justice and the legal system are (“rich girls don’t go to prison” or something along those lines is the line of dialogue). Sadly, the film seems to equate disbelief in a god with the lack of any morality and the ability to act without remorse or empathy, and that is wholly bullshit. It’s weird that minutes later the film almost seems to also shoehorn in a pro-choice message (Rocky, after facing a possible sexual violation, is given the choice to escape with money or call the cops and lose the money).

While the film fails on a messaging standpoint, it still really works as an effective and tense thriller. Hell, we even get a “Cujo” homage as Rocky attempts to escape the Blind Man’s ferocious dog while trapped in a locked car. Story issues aside, this film is a really exciting and intense film with a nice visual style and flair, and that third act twist is effective even it comes with some anti-Atheist bullshit.

The director and co-writer here is Fede Alvarez, who did a decent job with the “Evil Dead” remake three years back, even if “Ash vs. Evil Dead” was more along the lines of what we wanted from the “Evil Dead” franchise. This film shows he’s a good director who can really film suspense and violence and infuse a sequence with tension, but that perhaps, much like directors Guillermo del Toro and Rob Zombie, should probably stay away from writing the films that they direct. The concept of “Don’t Breathe” is sound, but the story and character particulars are shoddy, and that anti-Atheist message really bugged the hell out of me, as did the lack of any social message when setting your film in Detroit and dealing with lower class characters, especially when they did include that tossed off line about the rich being above the law.

If you just want to see a good suspense film and the issues I brought up don’t matter to you, you can do far worse than “Don’t Breathe”, which despite its flaws is a very good film. It plays sort of as a very loose reworking of “The People Under The Stairs” at times, with shades of “Cujo” or even “The Collector” in there. Despite its sloppiness on the written level, I have to give the film props on being a genuinely good R-rated horror film in an age where studios shy away from releasing these movies in theaters, as opposed to VOD. It’s a fun film. Shut your brain off and enjoy. B

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