Don’t Breathe, the second feature film from Uruguayan writer-director Fede Alvarez (of 2013’s Evil Dead reboot) produced by legendary filmmaker Sam Raimi, is the depraved offspring of Sofia Coppola’s The Bling Ring and Wes Craven’s The People Under the Stairs. It’s about a group of teens who try to rob a blind man’s house, only to discover he’s not as passive as they expected. Jane Levy, who already earned her Final Girl Merit Badge as Mia in Alvarez’s Evil Dead, stars as Rocky, a young woman determined to escape her abusive mother and save her younger sister (Emma Bercovici) from a dead-end existence in Detroit.
Rocky and her friends Alex (Dylan Minnette) and Money (Daniel Zovatto) have pulled off a series of sophisticated burglaries in order to come up with enough cash to make it to California, but they’ve yet to score big. When the trio learns that a blind recluse (played by Stephen Lang) living in an abandoned neighborhood has a six-figure cash settlement stashed away, they agree to go all-in on one last big heist. Their plan goes horribly wrong, however, when their intended victim turns out to be more frightening than they ever anticipated. As the retired army vet stalks them relentlessly through his heavily fortified house, Rocky and her friends find themselves in a terrifying life-or-death struggle.
In 2009, Alvarez released his short film Panic Attack! on YouTube. The sci-fi short about an alien invasion in Montevideo led to Ghost House Pictures – Rob Tapert and Raimi’s production company – recruiting the Uruguayan filmmaker to helm a re-imagining of Raimi’s classic 1981 horror film. When I attended the film’s premiere at the SXSW in 2013, I was blown away by its unrelenting brutality. With Don’t Breathe, Alvarez provides a different but equally intense experience with a twisted horror-thriller that’s more suspense than splatter. If Alvarez’s Evil Dead was a demonic carnival ride, Don’t Breathe is a literal house of horrors – a claustrophobic descent into darkness where your senses fail you, defenseless to what lingers in the shadows.
Alvarez’s skillful direction, along with the cinematography of Pedro Luque (The Silent House), creates a palpable sense of dread, heightened by Roque Baños‘ primal score and some anxiety inducing sound design. As far as performances go, Lang is the perfect choice for the the film’s mysterious blind man. He is imposing and formidable but vulnerable and even sympathetic. Rocky is a survivor like Ripley, Sarah Connor, and Furiosa before her. She starts out as an unlikeable character, a punk kid stealing from an old blind man, but in the process she becomes an anti-hero, struggling to escape from the bowels of Hell itself.
The last 30 minutes of Don’t Breathe are straight-up bonkers. The film moves at such a frenzied pace that it flies right off the tracks into a shocking and utterly satisfying finale that is gleefully depraved. Alvarez’s movie avoids clichés by subverting genre tropes and engaging the audience in a moral quandary. There are no saints, everyone’s pretty disreputable. The trio are products of their environment, desperate to change their lives, but does that justify their actions? The blind man is acting according to his own code – but has he taken things too far? Alvarez and co-writer Rodo Sayagues are smart to show the blind man’s humanity before revealing his horrifying secrets. We empathize with him, even if he’s something of a monster.
So far 2016 has been a pretty great year for horror films and thrillers, with Karyn Kusama’s The Invitation, Jeremy Saulnier’s Green Room, Jaume Collet-Serra’s The Shallows, and now Alvarez’s Don’t Breathe. What’s interesting about each of these films is that they all involve people who are trapped, cut off from the rest of the world and forced to adapt or die. These movies are essentially exploitation pictures, B-movies with the slick, stylish veneer of arthouse cinema. While big-budget blockbusters continue to disappoint, these smaller, more intimate films are more than making up for it.
Don’t Breathe is worth seeing in a theater with a packed house. Moviegoers were sitting on the edge of their seats at my screening, holding their breath in anticipation of the next bizarre twist. Alvarez and Sayagues have created a wicked game of cat-and-mouse that is visually striking and exceedingly effective. It will be interesting to see how Alvarez grows as a filmmaker with his next two projects, an adaptation of the Dante’s Inferno video game and Monsterpocalypse, based on Kaiju-themed collectible miniatures. I look forward to seeing how he sharpens and focuses his already impressive skill-set with bigger budgets and a wider scope.
Adam’s Rating: 4 out of 5