Don’t Breathe Is a Smart and Steady Throat Squeeze
Just make sure you skip the first minute.
Don’t Breathe begins with an attractive, overhead tracking-shot (via a drone) of a mostly deserted street in an abandoned Detroit neighborhood. It’s a visually arresting image, making it clear why director Fede Alvarez felt it worthy of opening his sophomore feature, but as an in medias res intro – a scene showing viewers an event from the future before jumping backwards to tell the story leading up to it – it serves solely to hamstring some major suspense beats throughout the film.
I won’t describe the scene here as my suggestion instead is to simply avoid the screen for the first minute of the film, and don’t start watching until you hear the first line of dialogue.
It’s a misstep (easily avoided via the suggestion above), but happily, even with that unfortunate opening Alvarez’s follow-up to the brutal and wickedly gory Evil Dead reboot is an absolute blast of tension, twists, and turns. Even better? It’s pretty damn smart too.
Three young thieves are burgling homes and making off with jewelry, electronics, and other objects, and each is doing it for their own reason. Money (Daniel Zovatto) gets the tips on houses to hit and is a low-rent thug from his corn rows to the showy attitude beneath them. His girl, Rocky (Jane Levy), is a single mom trying to save enough money to get her and her daughter away from the city and Rocky’s own dangerous mom. The third wheel in the group, Alex (Dylan Minnette), harbors a not-so secret crush on Rocky and provides his friends with the means to commit their crimes by targeting customers of his father’s home security company.
When Money gets a scoop about a blind war vet (Stephen Lang) living in an otherwise empty neighborhood and rumored to be sitting on a large sum of cash the three decide to target him next. The money is apparently settlement payments from the family of a rich, young woman whose careless driving took the life of the vet’s only child and who escaped conviction thanks to the family’s wealth. These are the players, this is the game, and it’s not going to end how any of them expected it to.
Don’t Breathe, co-written by Alvarez and Rodo Sayagues, offers a simple setup – a fun twist on the usual home invasion thriller that sees the intruders realizing too late that the homeowner is a bigger bad ass than any of them could hope to be – and executes it with welcome style and intelligence. Minor issues exist including a supposedly blocked window that breaks easily moments later, a scene that sees its threatening power rubbing up against an element of silliness, and an occasional reliance on spelling things out unnecessarily, but none of them manage to pump the breaks on the increasing thrills and danger.
Alvarez’s camera offers us our first look inside the house by way of an elaborate tracking shot as our trio of thieves explore its nooks and crannies in search of the loot, but once the vet awakes to interrupt them the action shifts into a sharp and energetic game of cat and mouse. Typically the protagonists would make multiple mistakes and frustrating decisions over the course of the film, but here the friends’ efforts to survive see no such stupidity. Their initial choice of victim aside, they never act stupid and instead keep their wits about them even as the night takes darker, more twisted turns.
A smart script is paired with the equally uncommon presence of strong performers resulting in added weight on both sides of the threat divide. Rocky and her friends are hardly the good guys, but Levy gives her character emotional purpose and a desperate, determined drive to survive that leaves viewers in her corner. Minnette does well with less character-wise and earns our empathy along the way, but Lang meanwhile is a force of nature – helpless, weak old man man one minute and snarling, sinister brute the next.
Running just under ninety minutes, Don’t Breathe is ultimately a breath of fresh air for a genre at risk of growing stale. Capable characters, sharp direction, and an energetic story that steadily ramps up the tension and the threat make for a terrifically fun time at the movies.