Don't Breathe (2016) / Thriller-Horror

MPAA Rated: R for terror, violence, disturbing content, and language including sexual references
Running Time: 88 min.

Cast: Jane Levy, Stephen Lang, Dylan Minnette, Daniel Zovatto
Director: Fede Alvarez
Screenplay: Fede Alvarez, Rodo Sayagues

Review published August 26, 2016

Set in Detroit, a trio of young poverty-stricken friends make ends meet by robbing the houses in more affluent areas around the city, though fencing the hot merchandise doesn't always make the risk worth their while. These petty thieves want to get out of their bleak, dysfunctional home lives, hoping they can find greener pastures in California, but to do that, they have to find a place to rob that has enough real cash on hand to allow them to make the leap. After doing the research, they spot their next target in, surprisingly, one of the worst neighborhoods in the area -- an isolated place as most of the neighbors nearby have left, and the owner of the house (Lang, Band of Robbers) is an older recluse who came into a load of cash following a settlement when his daughter was tragically killed in a car accident. Unfortunately, what they don't take into account is that the man is a war vet with a "particular set of skills" that makes him a dangerous presence, even without the benefit of his sight, and that he's made his home into a place that's about as difficult to get out of as it is to get into.

Fede Alvarez co-writes and directs this tight and atmospheric home-invasion thriller, with strong tinges of horror elements, constructed on the promise of engaging the audience with stakes and suspense before spiraling into a riveting, tension-packed finale. Purely taken on these terms, Don't Breathe certainly delivers, even if the plausibility of the premise and the motivations of its characters threaten to undo the tension from time to time, especially as the movie tries to go big with a terror-filled set pieces. Some viewers will no doubt feel a twinge of deja vu to the similarly-premised Wait Until Dark role once inhabited by Audrey Hepburn, and the inescapable dead-end thrills of two other 2016 semi-horrific thrillers, Green Room and 10 Cloverfield Lane. Elements of more classic horror flicks, from Alien to Cujo are tossed in for good measure, which make Don't Breathe feel more like an evolutionary fright flick, rather than a revolutionary one. While the ambitious plot may bend, it never breaks, as the film quickly bounces back from overreaching through Alvarez's taut and stylish cinematic approach, which generates a great deal of excitement on what will happen next.

For his second feature film, Alvarez brings back the star of his 2013 remake of Evil Dead, Jane Levy, who continues to perform remarkably well as a relatable and convincing scream queen in horror flicks. Underrated character actor Stephen Lang, as with his turn in Avatar, provides a genuinely formidable, cringe-worthy villain (or hero, at least if you sympathize with his position). His fierce look and mostly unintelligible attempts to communicate make him particularly frightening as a force not easily reasoned with, though the film keeping his character as something subhuman for most of the run time is a bit of a mystery given he has no reason to be.  Not that this film needs defined heroes and villains, as it is much more complex when our loyalties and sympathies are blurred among all participants, though the story definitely begins to shift in our rooting interests to a defined person before veering into the climax.

Working with adept cinematographer Pedro Luque (The Silent House), who makes excellent use of photography within a claustrophobic space, Don't Breathe is a snappy, engaging thriller that packs enough punch in its momentum to tantalize those looking for an escapist suspense vehicle with an ample amount of well-earned, adrenalized jolts. There's even a centerpiece scene in which we see the actors fighting for space and survival from within a pitch-black basement, with the eeriness of the situation accentuated by the use of a night-vision filter on the cameras.  But what truly sets apart Don't Breathe from your run-of-the-mill gimmicky thriller is that Alvarez and screenwriting partner Rodo Sayagues commit to establishing characters and motivations early, allowing us to invest enough in them to feel palpable dread for their harrowing situation, and we want to see their individual stories to their conclusion.

A few unanswered questions do leave the otherwise satisfying experience with a bit of an aftertaste, especially in the ways that someone should be knocked out cold but isn't, should have been contained but wasn't, or should have expired, but hasn't.  Those unexplained elements bother me too after the fact, but not as much in the moment of this fast-moving chiller, so suspension of disbelief might creep in, but only once the expected entertainment threshold has already been reached.  The lean but potent Don't Breathe is best watched in a theater with a full crowd of amped movie-goers, whose squeals of effective shock and clever surprises fuel the entertainment value through the shared experience of the nail-biting moments within.

Qwipster's rating:

2016 Vince Leo