Written by: Fede Alvarez, Rodo Sayagues
Directed by: Fede Alvarez
Starring: Stephen Lang, Jane Levy, and Dylan Minnette
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman (@brettgallman)
"Now you'll see what I'll see."
Everything feels broken in Don’t Breathe, Fede Alvarez’s coarse, mean-as-hell follow-up to Evil Dead. Unfolding in the shambles of Detroit, he paints a bleak portrait of a post-recession America mired in seediness and desperation. Crumbling homes and shattered dreams have shored against the ruins of a hollowed-out city, leaving those stranded within to pick up the pieces—and then promptly stab each other to death with them. Each frame of Don’t Breathe reflects this grizzled, knotted mindset: this is a savage, no-holds-barred movie, one that’s consistently cringe-worthy thanks to its sheer brutality. If Alvarez’s re-imagining of Evil Dead was a rousing trip to the Grand Guignol, then this is a dispiriting descent into a hell forged out of lost, disaffected lives.
Barely carving out an existence among this desolation is Rocky (Jane Levy), a young woman struggling to raise her little sister with no help from her deadbeat mom and her scumbag boyfriend. Longing to escape, she plots a move to California funded by the loot she recovers from breaking into homes with a ragtag crew that includes her boyfriend and a friend-zoned tagalong. When the former arrives with news of a can’t-miss score involving at least $300,000, she jumps at the opportunity. Ignoring the fact that the house is located in an eerie, desolate neighborhood and occupied by a blind veteran (Stephen Lang) of the Iraq War, the trio breaks into the home, only to find the tables swiftly turned against them. Far from helpless, he ruthlessly sets out to defend his home from the invaders, who are in danger of uncovering more than just the pile of money he’s hoarded in the house.
While Don’t Breathe is deceptively resonant from a thematic standpoint, it takes a blunt force trauma approach with its attempt to bludgeon the audience with stark violence. Alvarez might not dump absurd buckets of blood this time around, but this effort doesn’t feel any less nasty. With the exception of Pedro Luque’s smooth, gliding cinematography, Don’t Breathe is all rough edges and jagged ferocity. Every gunshot, punch, and strangulation feels positively callous, their ruthlessness amplified by the suffocating, claustrophobic lensing. A naturally intensity arises from the feeling that the audience is perched right alongside these helpless intruders—this is the sort of movie where a guy opening a door feels like a jarring, violent act rather than a cheap jump scare.
Much of that owes to Lang’s positively menacing presence. Appearing not as if he’s been carefully chiseled out of stone so much as he’s been crudely carved from it, he’s a tank that moves with the violent swiftness of a Humvee. His sympathetic face deceptively hides sinister intentions beyond his understandable attempt to defend his home. As these come into focus via the film’s wild twists and turns, he becomes more animalistic: when lit by the camera’s night-vision filter, his face becomes an inhuman reflection of an anguished rage that can only express itself by pummeling the shit out of everything in its path. He’s an intense, terrifying horror villain whose presence is genuinely unsettling, especially when his odd vocal cadence begins to reveal his twisted, godless worldview.
His victims are no saints, either, of course, each of them petty thieves who have graduated to a situation here that’s totally out of their league. Where her two companions are mostly accessories, some measure of decency exists within Rocky, a woman driven to this lifestyle seemingly out of necessity. Her desperation outweighs her criminality, which is not to say it excuses it; rather, Alvarez obviously reserves some measure of sympathy for her plight. Perhaps she’d be a better person in other circumstances; in these, she’s going to get hers at any cost. Some of the plot developments do allow her an opportunity to play something of a hero, a turn for which she is swiftly punished.
Make no mistake: Alvarez might sympathize with Rocky, but Don’t Breathe is proof that Levy might be to him what Bruce Campbell is to Sam Raimi. She endures a tremendous amount of punishment in the role, as Lang’s almost preternatural madman relentlessly stalks and assaults her. There’s a believable physicality to it all that’s crucial to the film’s effectiveness: every single jump, tumble, tussle, scramble and stumble registers, resulting in a disturbingly visceral experience. In a cinematic landscape that’s full of apocalyptic disaster porn, Don’t Breathe—like The Shallows earlier this summer—is a reminder that the peril of one body is often more harrowing. That Alvarez accomplishes this without resorting to outrageous gore is remarkable: Don’t Breathe bruises and rattles in lieu of shedding obscene amounts of blood.
Levy’s pluckiness makes the ordeal even more unsettling and helps to cast Don’t Breathe in a political light. Obviously, Alvarez is mining the same sort of socioeconomic anxieties Wes Craven explored in The People Under the Stairs, albeit with a bit less articulation and righteous fury. Nevertheless, he directs some anger towards these characters’ circumstances—certainly, the choice of Detroit (a go-to symbol of faded American glory) is no coincidence, nor is the decision to constantly highlight its decaying, hollowed-out husk. When the nearby automobile industry was bailed out, these characters—a low-income woman and a wounded veteran (who's so discarded that he's never even named)—were left to fend for themselves.
One can make the argument that no one is particularly likeable in Don’t Breathe, but to do so would perhaps miss the point: it’s disturbing that these folks have been driven to be completely unlikable by a society that’s all but discarded them. They’re the scraps forced to eat each other alive as the more affluent remain blissfully unaware—at least until one of their set is unexpectedly drawn into these twisted proceedings. In a movie where a character bluntly growls “rich girls don’t go to prison,” it’s hard to miss what’s on Alvarez’s mind, and it at least provides some thematic heft to an already solid home invasion thriller.
On that front, Don’t Breathe isn’t afraid to veer off into some bizarre territory. Like its central villain, the film deceptively hoards some secrets that are unleashed on an unsuspecting audience during a fairly wild third act. Certainly, it takes a weird turn that’ll likely cement itself as part of the film’s legacy: when we talk about Don’t Breathe years from now, everyone’s mind is going to go to that scene. Despite its lack of over-the-top gore, the film has a subtle French New Extremity vibe thanks to a this strange diversion—it’s just at that right level of violent and perverse to make you squirm, just as the likes of Inside and Martyrs did.
In fact, these developments might be so strange that I’m not sure the film recovers from it. This isn’t an indictment of the fifteen minutes or so that follow it but simply an acknowledgement that it’s so far out there that it can’t be topped. Alvarez tries his damnedest to do so, summoning Lang’s hellhound companion for a climax that grows somewhat repetitive. You sense that Don’t Breathe deserves a more emphatic climax to put it completely over-the-top. Oddly enough, this stands in stark contrast to Alvarez’s Evil Dead, a film that roars out of the gate and stays in overdrive for 90 minutes; in contrast, Don’t Breathe approaches it before revving down a bit.
Still, there’s no denying just how revolting and uncomfortable the experience is as a whole, and it solidifies Alvarez’s place as one of our most deviously vulgar horror directors. His association with producer Sam Raimi is almost ironic: there’s nothing of his playfulness to be found because Alvarez isn’t here to fuck around. In the end, he wants to break you, too.
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