Fede Alvarez, after delivering a surprisingly rad reboot with the 2013 splatterfest that was Evil Dead, has now proven with Don’t Breathe to be one of the most exciting up-and-coming genre filmmakers due to his ability to bring not only smart and meticulous craftsmanship, but also a twisted energy that feels like what you get if a crazy man stole 10 million dollars, held some poor actors hostage and made a fucked up movie for his own amusement.
That last part is meant to be a compliment, by the way.
Don’t Breathe is absolutely the real deal, a true horror treat. While James Wan is bringing back a prestige element that has been missing in mainstream American horror with The Conjuring 2, Fede Alvarez is bringing back the gross, visceral, semi-exploitative horror that I feel we almost got after the promise of the (only) great Rob Zombie film, The Devil’s Rejects, but unfortunately never really came to fruition.
Oh, you wanted more? OK, let’s take a couple steps back.
Don’t Breathe takes a very simple set-up, three burglars, Alex (Dylan Minnette), Rocky (Jane Levy) and Money (Daniel Zovatto) get a tip for a potential final job, an old war vet (Stephen Lang) who lives by himself in an empty Detroit neighborhood, stashing hundreds of thousands of dollars that he received from a settlement when a rich girl ran over and killed his daughter several years ago. Motivated to leave her bad home environment behind in favor of a better life for her little sister, Rocky agrees to the robbery with her boyfriend, Money, and convinces Alex to take part and join them on their one-way trip out of Detroit. However, it turns out that the war vet is also blind, and it also turns out he doesn’t mess around when it comes to unwelcomed strangers.
With that set-up Alvarez and his co-writer, Rodo Sayagues, are able to make the most of what is seemingly simple material, using audience expectations to their advantage and utilizing every inch of the house to craft a clever moment, a scare or a piece of a sequence for suspense building. The scripting is tight, efficient and economic. That efficiency in the writing is complemented by Alvarez’s direction and use of the camera (with cinematographer, Pedro Luque) which is very purposefully used. I enjoyed the stylish and manic (and obviously Sam Raimi inspired) camera work with Evil Dead, but here, there is a special attention given to using the camera to tell the story and foreshadowing certain plot beats that will come back later. Alvarez clearly has a grasp on good storytelling and it shows that he has really evolved as a filmmaker, especially considering the budget is about half of what Evil Dead cost.
Another great aspect of the film is the overall effort put into the design of the house and in the sound. The film plays with the space in the house as the characters are going through various hallways, doors or even vents, and there is always a sense of cohesion and place. The geography is totally on-point and they get it out of the way surprisingly fat before things get crazy. The sound design and mixing is some of the best I’ve experienced in a theater all year. Each creak, snap, squeal, and (you guessed it) breath is given a booming, stereo effect which envelops and travels throughout the theater. Each piece of sound matters to the characters, so it’s clear that it was also a priority for the filmmakers to get that across in a way that works both dramatically and cinematically. After all, despite always being called a “visual medium,” it’s really the audio that can make or break a movie, horror in particular. And the sound work in Don’t Breathe shines in both its loud moments and deathly quiet ones.
And the cherry on top is the all around solid performances from the cast. Stephen Lang works wonders with only a few lines and a deeply intimidating presence. Jane Levy is absolutely stellar, as proven already by her equally compelling turn in Evil Dead, she’s is able to put a lot of empathy into a very flawed character and she goes all out when it comes to the physical demands that the role throws at her, and Don’t Breathe certainly isn’t an exception. Hopefully, casting directors will actually take notice this time since they somehow missed the memo after Evil Dead. There isn’t a ton going on with the characters, their motivations are fairly simplistic, but that is where the actors get a bit of (oddly enough) breathing room to just do their thing. The movie isn’t begging you to root for any one character, but it gives you different perspectives and allows for some empathy in people you normally wouldn’t have anything to do with, in that same way David Ayer does with most of his work.
The only real drawbacks are at the end when the final scene acts as our The-End-but-with-a-question-mark moment. It is by no means as gratuitous as others that I’ve seen in recent horror films, but it still feels largely unnecessary, and it comes after the film already doing multiple false endings Return of the King style. The film also begins with a brief in media res segment before the opening title, making almost the rest of the movie a flashback, which also served little purpose. The big reveal in the movie goes into some really nasty territory and I can see that turning some people off, especially with the whole movie already kinda being an exercise in “disabled people = scary.” However, as harsh and gross as the movie gets, it isn’t as mean-spirited as it might let on, it lacks that malicious/toxic mindset that I can see plaguing the film if it was under the hands of a far lesser skilled filmmaker and the exploitative moments, to me, worked within the context of the narrative. Ultimately, most of the issues I may have had are basically minor quibbles that never detract from the immersion of the film.
I thoroughly enjoyed Fede Alvarez’s Evil Dead, but I can admit that on a narrative level, it’s a little sloppy, Don’t Breathe, on the other hand, is a marvel in both its technical attributes and efficient economic storytelling, combining Hitchcock’s rules of suspense with nasty, white-knuckled horror inspirations lifted from the likes of The People Under the Stairs, Wait Until Dark as well as those run-and-hide survival horror games like Outlast. The cast is great and it’s riveting from beginning to end, with more than enough crowd jolting moments to seep into your memory for a long time to come. In a year that has given us plenty of excellent horror films with The Conjuring 2, The Witch, Green Room, 95% of Lights Out, Don’t Breathe manages to be a worthy addition to that crowd. I don’t know about all this “best American horror film in 20 years” thing, but this is one for the books, and for all you poor YouTubers and listicle writers, be prepared to re-do your “Top 10 Most Disturbing Horror Movie Moments” videos/articles because of this. 90/100