Some thieves break into a house at night, knowing that the occupant is vulnerable and eager to be up to no good – it’s a familiar horror scenario, right? Don’t Breathe takes pleasure in flipping that on its head – here, the thieves are the victims, and we get to follow this break-in as it becomes a relentlessly tense cat-and-mouse chase. Director Fede Alvarez is happy to do something different and, in doing so, treats the viewer to a pulse-raising and thrilling horror.
A trio of young thieves – Rocky (Jane Levy), Alex and Money – get their kicks by breaking into the houses of wealthy people, and when they hear about a blind Gulf War veteran (Stephen Lang) who won a major cash settlement after the death of his only child, they figure that he must be an easy target and decide to invade his secluded home. Things take a turn for the worse when their victim reveals that he is nowhere near as helpless as he seemed, and they find themselves trapped in the house, discovering a horrible secret that the man will do anything to keep hidden.
Don’t Breathe is a fil that is very good at testing your sympathies – nobody here is a particularly good character, and we have a horrible home life scene at the start for Rocky just so we feel anything towards her as the film progresses (at certain points, it is easy or difficult to forget that these people are burglars trying to steal from a war veteran). There is little in the way of character work – the premise really demands a lot of silence, and Lang only has ten or so lines of dialogue at all.
As such, the film relies a good deal on physical performances. Levy, fast becoming one of the scream queens of our age, conveying a lot of vulnerability and fear via expression alone – she makes a fine contrast to Lang, whose silent physical presence is menacing from the moment he appears on-screen. There is little really to say about the other thieves – Dylan Minnette functions as the voice of reason, if not one of conscience, and the Money character is a typical jackass cannon fodder.
The silent premise of Don’t Breathe also succeeds as well as it does because of the guiding hands behind the camera. When we enter the house, Alvarez lets the camera roam, giving us a sense of the physical space of the house, pausing just long enough on certain things to let us know what may or may not be important. That way, when things really begin to go south, we can find tension in knowing just how claustrophobic the house is, and in exactly what obstacles lie between the thieves, and it is a very effective strategy. Similarly, a sequence in the basement in which the criminals are forced to find their way around in the pitch-black helps convert the found-footage night vision trope into something far more frightening.
Don’t Breathe is not a perfect film, although its primary objective of being a tense horror-thriller throughout is very well achieved. To be fair, it isn’t really the type of film that particularly invites a lot of thought afterwards, and many callbacks will be to a scene that attempts to shed perhaps a touch too much light on the blind man. You’ll know exactly what I’m talking about when you reach it – some found it funny, I found it quite horrible. Either way, it’ll stay with you.
This film takes a basic and familiar premise, and in inverting it, it delivers something really unique. Don’t Breathe is an intense viewing experience, brutal in places but gripping throughout, delivered with the unabashed confidence of a director making a real genre treat.
Director: Fede Alvarez
Cast: Stephen Lang (The Blind Man), Jane Levy (Rocky), Dylan Minnette (Alex), Daniel Zovatto (Money), Emma Bercovici (Diddy), Franciska Töröcsik (Cindy)
Running Time: 88 Mins