Don’t Breathe is intense, thrilling, scary and tidily constructed.
The horror genre has always teetered between the two extremes of visionary originality and utter derivation. This makes Fede Alvarez’s new film Don’t Breathe all the more impressive as it manages to introduce intriguing twists while adhering to a relatively well-trod formula. Most of the film follows heroine Rocky (played by the Evil Dead remake’s Jane Levy) as she desperately tries to escape the booby-trapped home of the villain, (Avatar’s Stephen Lang).
This familiar foundation allows Alvarez (who also wrote the film alongside Rodo Sayagues) to throw in a few tweaks to the formula without sacrificing believability or lessening the tension. Chiefly among these is that Lang’s villain, referred to as The Blind Man, a disabled war veteran. Rocky and her friends have broken into his Detroit home to steal the money he received as part of a settlement following the death of his beloved daughter.
The question then posed to the viewer is whether to ally with Rocky and her friends (played by Goosebumps’ Dylan Minnette and It Follows’ Daniel Zovatto) or The Blind Man. Rocky is trying to steal The Blind Man’s money in order to save her younger sister from their mother’s abusive home and move to California to start to a new life. And though he is the victim, it’s immediately clear that The Blind Man has a dark side as well.
This ambiguity persists through Don’t Breathe’s first half, until a plot twist firmly suggests where the viewer’s allegiance should lie. Don’t Breathe plays as a kind of mirror image to Terence Young’s 1967 classic thriller, Wait Until Dark, where Audrey Hepburn played a blind victim of a home invasion. In the case of Don’t Breathe, having a blind villain whose other senses are enhanced Daredevil-style, makes every creaking floorboard, buzzing cellphone and inhalation of breath that much more excruciating. A scene midway through that finds The Blind Man chasing Rocky through a pitch-black basement is both terrifying and beautifully filmed.
Setting is also a key to the film’s success. Detroit feels vital to the film, as the nearly abandoned neighborhood where The Blind Man lives factors heavily into the plot – as do the blurred lines between the haves and the have-nots. Pedro Luque’s cinematography, which finds beauty and horror in the city’s abandoned, weed-clogged streets and terror in the claustrophobic confines of The Blind Man’s home, is excellent.
Don’t Breathe does falter in a few areas, however. Most notably, it sticks so strictly to the “trapped in a house” horror formula (popularized in the ‘70s by The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and persistent ever since) that the conclusion feels inevitable, deflating for a film so fraught with tension. A brave twist would have been more in line with the film’s other innovations. Don’t Breathe also makes a brief detour into sexual-reproductive horror. It is a concern that a film with a relatively strong female protagonist feels the need to put her in a situation where she is tied up and threatened with sexual assault. Though this takes a semi-feminist turn and results in Don’t Breathe’s most memorable image, it still requires Rocky to be sexually threatened by a man and then rescued by a man.
Finally, while it is disheartening to see any film feature almost exclusively white characters, it’s particularly damning to see a film set in Detroit have that problem, especially considering the city’s sizable and integral African American population. Don’t Breathe has a relatively small cast, but that can’t make up for the fact there is only one non-white character and no African American characters.
Though Don’t Breathe stumbles with its conclusion and is out of touch with regard to race and gender, it does move the genre forward with small innovations, yet sticking to the genre’s principle tenant: to terrify. Don’t Breathe is intense, thrilling, scary and tidily constructed, sure to leave horror audiences satisfied and, fittingly, breathless.