Don't Breathe (2016) [Blu-ray review]

Author: Brett Gallman
Submitted by: Brett Gallman   Date : 2016-11-30 02:13

Don’t Breathe (2016)
Studio: Sony Pictures
Release date: November 29th, 2016

Reviewed by: Brett Gallman (@brettgallman)

The following is a more spoiler-filled review; for a non-spoiler look, here's the one from the film's theatrical release.

The movie:

With two features under his belt, Fede Alvarez has begun to establish a distinct niche for himself alongside collaborator Sam Raimi. On the surface, it's a pairing that seems to make sense: between Evil Dead and Don’t Breathe, it’s clear that Alvarez shares his mentor’s penchant for devious filmmaking, particularly when it comes to pushing boundaries. However, where Raimi often does so with a certain playfulness, Alvarez twists this proclivity into some truly screwy, mean-spirited shit. You sense that his general approach—unleash mayhem and brutality—is more or less the same, but there’s something a little more genuinely fucked up about it. Where Raimi usually straps you into a rollercoaster and sends you off with a playful shove, Alvarez wants to send your car right off the rails and decorate the tracks with your innards.

Don’t Breathe is almost gleefully unhinged in this respect. Alvarez’s sense of twisted showmanship is obvious in the premise, which finds a trio of twentysomething thieves breaking into a house for one last score that will help embittered and embattled Rocky (Jane Levy) move across the country with her younger sister in an effort to remove her from a toxic household. The catch? In the first of a few reveals, it turns out that the easy mark—a blind Iraq War vet (a maniacal, animalistic Stephen Lang)—is more than capable of defending his turf.

With the tables firmly turned, Don’t Breathe plays to expectations for a bit, unfolding as a grimier, grislier reverse-riff on Wait Until Dark. It’s loaded with suspense punctuated by bursts of viciousness, all of it captured by Alvarez’s almost incongruently silky aesthetic. DP Pedro Luque operates as something of a secret weapon, deploying smooth, gliding camerawork that ominously prowls throughout the twisted, horrific geography of the increasingly suffocating house. When Alvarez debuted with his take on Evil Dead, the appeal was obvious: here was a mostly well-oiled bloodbath, one that moved with gore-soaked abandon. What it lacked in precision, pacing, and general direction, it made up for with a willingness to assault its audience.

For the most part, Don’t Breathe follows suit. Once Alvarez dutifully crafts some nail-biting suspense, you can almost feel him itching to reveal the really messed up stuff lurking beneath the surface of the film. Fittingly, the lid is blown off with a trip down to the bowels of the blind man’s home. Here, the full extent of this house of horrors is unveiled: not only is the vet a vicious defender of his own turf, but he’s also downright deranged. Driven to vengeance-fueled madness after losing his daughter in a car accident, he’s abducted the reckless driver responsible and harbors incredibly sinister intentions for her. It’s here that Alvarez reveals the depths of his film’s depravity with a turn of events that has become understandably divisive since the film’s release.

Seemingly caring very little about tact or grace, Alvarez indulges his inner exploitation hound by resorting to one of the cheapest provocations imaginable: a forced impregnation via turkey baster overflowing with sperm. Despite the blind man’s insistence that he’s not rapist, he most certainly is, and it’s a transgression that exists for the sake of transgression, almost as if Alvarez and co-writer Rodo Sayagues couldn’t help but completely turn the tables here in the most sordid way imaginable. Even a few months later, I’m not sure if this is a criticism or merely an observation: certainly, it feels like bad taste to delight in just how fucked up it is, which feels like the immediate purpose of Alvarez’s provocation. On the other hand, it does unfold in a genre that often demands such provocation and, well, horror, so it feels within the bounds, no matter how out-of-left-field it feels.

This is a copout, but I can see both sides here, and, while Don’t Breathe doesn’t compel me to that much of a fervent defense, I admit it’s nice to see a mainstream horror film bother to be confrontational. Say what you want about Alvarez: beneath the slick, studio veneer adorning both of his features rests the grimy, warped souls of the director’s schlock forbearers. Don’t Breathe deserves some criticism for its unsteady pacing, dodgy logic, and heavy-handed symbolism; however, one can’t accuse it of being completely forgettable. If nothing else, its late twists and turns all but secure a legacy of infamy, which is certainly preferable to the bland, cookie-cutter products that often roll off of studio assembly lines.

The disc:

After a rather successful run at the box office (which makes its provocations even more screwed up—millions of people paid to see some really bad shit unfold!), Don’t Breathe arrives home on Blu-ray from Sony Pictures. It’s a pretty solid release, at least in terms of quantity of extras: in addition to a commentary with Alvarez Sayagues, and Lang, the disc boasts 19 minutes of behind-the-scenes supplements spread over five featurettes. “No Escape” highlights the film’s visual style and notably features Luque detailing his vision for Don’t Breathe as being both highly stylized yet grounded in a grim reality. “Meet the Cast” is exactly what you’d expect, while “Man in the Dark” focuses exclusively on Lang’s blind man. “Creating the Creepy House” and “The Sounds of Horror” highlight the production and sound design, respectively.

Eight deleted scenes (with an optional commentary from Alvarez) are also featured. Most of them were rightfully left on the cutting room floor (one of the film’s chief virtues is its lean, 88-minute runtime), though a brief one featuring the blind man working in his garden wouldn’t have been too egregious (then again, it’s kind of hard to consider him to be all that innocuous when the first scene features him ominously dragging a blood-spattered Rocky down the street—who thought this was a good idea? If any scene deserved to be trimmed, this one qualifies.) The rest of the cut material is pretty redundant, unnecessary stuff, even if one features Levy dancing in a rare moment of levity before she endures absolute torment at the hands of her director.

Speaking of Alvarez, one of the most promising things about Evil Dead and Don’t Breathe is the evidence of an obvious emerging talent. He’s made two really solid, indelible films, and it seems quite possible his best work is yet to come. Given his penchant for wallowing in lurid, trashy pulp, he does seem like a perfect fit to helm the long-delayed sequel to The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. That's not a project I was exactly clamoring for, but it's more intriguing now. (Also intriguing: a recently announced Don't Breathe sequel, if only because I can't imagine how anyone would even bother to follow this up: I can't not be curious about that.)
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