Because you don’t know anything about Don’t Breathe, the second film from the Evil Dead remake director Fede Alvarez, I’m hesitant to spoil too much (although I’m sure the trailers will undoubtedly fulfill that role). To say that Don’t Breathe is tense is an understatement; it’s unquestionably one of the most heart-stopping cinematic experiences I’ve had in what seems like an eternity. There were numerous moments where the entire audience went completely still and, as the tension filled the room, it became more and more apparent that Fede Alvarez might just have crafted a new modern classic.
Rocky (Jane Levy, Mia from Evil Dead) is the ringleader for a small trio who rob houses in Detroit. Accompanied by her boyfriend, “Money” (Daniel Zovatto), and best friend, Alex (Dylan Minnette), they are careful to only steal items rather than cash and make sure it’s always under $10,000 to avoid larceny if caught. Alex’s father owns a home security company, which makes it quite convenient to steal the keys to the alarms of clients. Rocky is saving up enough money to escape her trailer lifestyle, planning to take her younger sister away from their deadbeat mother in exchange for a better life in California.
Money hears of a blind war vet, living alone on an abandoned street, who was granted a $300,000 settlement, and soon enough, the group is staking out the place, thinking this will be that “one last job” before freedom. Oh, if it were always that simple…
I don’t have to tell you that what they find there are horror they never could have imagined, as the old blind vet proves to be more competent and dangerous than he initially appears when we first see him, laying fast asleep in his bedroom.
Don’t Breathe isn’t as mercilessly gruesome as Evil Dead, but that certainly doesn’t mean the film holds back. Alvarez proves he isn’t a one-trick pony, relying on atmosphere, dread, and tension that could fill ten films. The film gets off to a somewhat-slow start, but it’s completely intentional. Alvarez pulls you in carefully, because once the blind man wakes up, you’ll be gripping your armrest every second for the entire 70 minutes. Wisely, Alvarez keeps the dialogue to a bare minimum once the shit hits the fan; there are only a handful of lines throughout the second half, which only serves to increase the intensity of the situation. Having too much dialogue is a release for the audience, allowing them to relax, something Alvarez will have none of.
The performances must be recognized too. Without the strength and willingness of the actors, this would crumble before our eyes. I can only imagine this was just as grueling for Levy as Evil Dead, but she’s more than willing to participate, and we’re all the better for it. I’ll be shocked if she doesn’t become more well known in the next few years. She is capable of conveying a mix of emotions with a simple glance. Several times in the film, we see her reaction before the reveal, and the terror in her eyes is enough to make your hair raise.
Zovatto turns what could have been a one-note performance into a layered character. Money isn’t supposed to be a likable character, but as they slowly realize they’ve lost the upper hand, Zovatto is able to make us begin to care for this boy who is simply a product of his environment. Dylan Minnette, who starred in last years surprisingly great Goosebumps, is the least showy performance out of the cast, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t good. He’s deceptively subtle with his performance, and you realize later what a strong, necessary actor he’s been for the film.
The Blind Man, never actually named, played by Stephen Lang, is the best villain in years. Don’t Breathe isn’t a horror film, but Lang is nothing short of horrific, barreling down his house with tremendous speed and accuracy. He’s never presented with superhuman strength; he’s simply a man who knows his home better than anyone else. There’s a sequence where our “heroes” scurry around in pitch black that is absolutely necessary to see with a crowded audience. It’s worth the price of admission alone.
To tell you anymore of the film would be criminal, and I really truly hope the marketing is kept to a bare minimum, because there are so many wonderful moments and twists that occur. Seeing this…blind…was an absolute joy.
If the film stumbles in any way, it’s in the beginning. We aren’t given enough of our three leads prior to entering the house. Alex accompanies them on these robberies because he has a crush on Rocky. That’s it. Three easy minutes could have solved this problem and fleshed out the characters perfectly.
There’s also a cheap jump scare before they enter the home which kills the tension the film has been working so hard at, and it doesn’t recover for a good five minutes. It’s almost as if Alvarez didn’t trust his audience to stay with the film. Removing that would seriously do wonders for the first act, and it would make one particular moment that much more effective. By placing a cheap scare early on, we lose trust, we’re now on our guard, which shouldn’t happen until the character arrive at that state. We’re on this journey with them, we shouldn’t be ahead of them emotionally.
There are other moments that can be nitpicked, but for a masterfully crafted thriller, it doesn’t matter to me, and it shouldn’t matter to you. Armed with another pulse-pounding score by Roque Banos, Don’t Breathe is near perfect thriller. If only he cuts that damn cheap scare before Don’t Breathe is released in August.