Don’t Breathe boasts impressive cinematography and direction that makes the tension almost unbearable, but makes you want to instantly watch it again.
2016 has been quite the year for genre films with strong entries ranging from Green Room to Hush, but the one that truly unnerved me was Fede Alvarez’s Don’t Breathe. It’s a story that feels familiar. It’s a home invasion movie, except told from the perspective of the robbers. The twist, which sets it apart from the similarly premised Wait Until Dark, is that the blind man they are robbing is a fearsome war veteran with more than a few tricks up his sleeves.
Don’t Breathe opens with a beautifully directed scene of our three main characters breaking into a house. I love movies that can effortlessly introduce us to its characters without telling us who they are or how we are supposed to feel about them. We quickly realize that Money (Daniel Zovatto) is the young, immature leader of the group. Alex (Dylan Minnette) is more reserved and seems to be in it for the thrill rather than the actual money. Rocky (Jane Levy) imagines the upper-class lifestyle of their targets. And this is all we learn in the first thirty seconds without any dialogue.
We learn that the three are targeting houses that are protected by Alex’s father’s security company. Money sells the stolen items to a friend. After not making enough on the last hit, he suggests hitting a house in a deserted section of Detroit. However, the house is occupied by a man known as the Blind Man (Steven Lang), a war veteran that apparently has a large sum of money as a settlement. That night, after subduing his fearsome dog, the trio make it into the house. What they find is something much more terrifying than they expected – a blind man that could fight back. From there, the story is flipped on the robbers as they fight to escape the house with their lives.
Fede Alvarez, whose feature film debut was the remake of Evil Dead, shows that he is a more than competent director. This movie got to me. The title must refer to what the movie makes the audience do. To say this movie was suspenseful is an understatement. The patience that he demonstrates is incredible. He holds shots and moments as long as he can to truly make you uncomfortable. There are some moments that the tension is almost unbearable. While it’s uncomfortable watch, the fact that he was able to make you feel that way is an incredible testament to his direction. Not only that, the jump scares in this movie aren’t outlined with egregious music cues. He allows the content to speak for itself.
However, I think it’s easy to say what nearly steals all of Don’t Breathe is its classic, yet singular cinematography by Pedro Luque. The reason a lot of horror cinematography seems to fall to the wayside is that it has to serve the scares. That’s why shots that show an apparition lurking over someone’s shoulder or in the mirror have been so common. It’s so rare for a horror movie to stand out. However, what Luque does in Don’t Breathe is seamlessly merge the needs of the movie with breathtaking craft. In particular, a three-minute one-take shot – with an assist from CGI – is really the centerpiece of the film. Not only does it set up the “field of play” for the entire movie, it begins the mounting tension that the movie never truly releases. It’s very reminiscent of a similar shot in David Fincher’s Panic Room. However, while that shot feels more for the art of it, this is more intentional.
Another scene, which has been highly publicized in the trailer, is when the Blind Man turns off the lights in a pitch black basement. Similarly to the tunnel scene in Sicario, it makes marvelous use of night vision camera – like the way they used heat vision cameras – to make the scene feel claustrophobic. The lack of music underscores the tension. It’s an incredible practice in patience and suspense.
My small issue with the movie is mostly in the character Rocky. She quickly comes to the forefront of the movie and is our main focus. I wasn’t completely sold on her motivations for robbing the house. There are small moments where she will do something risky to get the money that came off as reckless rather than admirable. I think that it is more of an issue with the performance by Jane Levy, which is otherwise really strong. I just think that she doesn’t come off as a “good person” like Dylan Minnette makes Alex. On the other hand, Daniel Zovatto does a fantastic job as the dirtbag Money.
Don’t Breathe is a gorgeous exercise in great directing that expertly ratchets up tension. However, it’s more complex than that. Some unbelievable and inventive cinematography immediately sets it apart from other genre films. You can even dive in further and talk about its commentary on the economic desolation of Detroit. Nonetheless, taking it at face value shows that it’s a thriller that does exactly what it’s supposed to do: leave you on the edge of your seat while you white knuckle the arm rest. Just remember, don’t forget to breathe.