13 September 2016
Don't Breathe review
2016 may have been a terrible year for blockbuster entertainment so far, but it's been a great one for horror, to the point where I've started to come around on a genre I previously had little time for. Films like Bone Tomahawk, The Witch and Green Room have all offered unique, exhilarating experiences with a real sense of craft behind them - and now Don't Breathe has done much the same, although admittedly to a lesser degree.
Set in Detroit, we follow a trio of young adults - Alex, the son of a security system installer; Rocky, a young mother looking to leave Detroit; and Money, Rocky's boyfriend - as they break into a blind veterans house in order to steal the large payout he received when his daughter was killed in a hit and run incident. Unfortunately for them, the man they are robbing is far more capable than they initially anticipated in spite of his blindness, and before long they are trapped in the house that he knows like the back of his hand.
This "trapped in a confined space" setup is one we've seen many times before (most recently in the aforementioned Green Room), but that doesn't make it any less effective. The layout of the house is made clear to us through the use of an unbroken shot that gives us a brief tour, ensuring that we understand where everyone and everything is throughout. Take note, Iñárritu - it turns out that long, unbroken shots can serve a purpose beyond stroking your own ego.
From that point on, Don't Breathe is simply an exercise in building tension, which it mainly does through ensuring that we hear every footstep our trio take, every creaky floorboard they step on, every squeaky hinge they use. It's an excellent use of sound, one that adds an awful lot to the film simply by making sure we understand how our blind antagonist is going to find them. Has he heard the buzz of that mobile phone, or the beeping of that safe? The only way we can know is if he shows up in that area, and the film uses the ambiguity of "is he on his way?" incredibly well.
And Stephen Lang (best known as Colonel Quaritch from Avatar) is perfect in the role too, first playing his character with a sense of vulnerability that quickly gives way to ruthless efficiency as soon as he feels threatened. He's an intimidating presence anyway, but seeing him stalk the hallways of his own home while our characters attempt to stay silent makes him feel more like a supernatural presence than a human being - an impression only reinforced by the dangerous physicality that Lang naturally brings to the role.
Unfortunately, Don't Breathe also suffers from a number of small issues that add up into something larger, something that stops it from being as good as it could've been. The most obvious of these is an unearned reveal that sends the movie off into schlock territory for the final third of its running time, almost entirely abandoning the stripped down, believable premise that was so effective to begin with, but Don't Breathe also suffers from a lack of gore that makes it feel somewhat tame when the tension is relieved, especially when compared to the much more visual, impactful Green Room.
Additionally, there are a handful of logical leaps and shortcomings that reveal that the movie isn't quite as well thought out as I would have liked. For example, at one point the blind guy smells the discarded shoes of the intruders from several metres away, but at no point does he smell the smoke of the cigarettes that they are explicitly shown smoking earlier on, despite being within centimetres of them. He also seems to be able to teleport occasionally - a staple of the slasher genre, I realise, but not something I wanted to see here.
These are issues that stop Don't Breathe from being in the same league as those films I mentioned earlier, but it's still an effective, engaging horror movie, one that is only going to help make director Fede Alvarez a big deal in horror for at least the next few years - and that's a good thing. If the technical ability and craft on display here could be applied to something a little richer, a little smarter, then we really could be looking at something special - but for now, Don't Breathe is good enough.