Directed by Fede Alvarez
Don't Breathe is like a bizzaro version of Wait Until Dark. In 1967 audiences sweated and chewed their fingernails and had trouble digesting their popcorn watching a blind woman, played by Audrey Hepburn, try to survive a home invasion. This time around, audiences will sweat, fingernails will be chewed and popcorn will cause indigestion watching a trio of burglars try to escape the blind owner of the home they've invaded in Don't Breathe. Where Wait Until Dark lay our sympathies naturally onto the lap of the home owner whose personal living space is assaulted and chewed on our nerve endings with the notion that not even your home is safe from drug smugglers and their conspiracies, Don't Breathe makes us ally with the trio of burglars, not with the home owner. We want to see them escape.
It's a little bit genius that. Getting the audience to side with the criminals is almost a magic trick. They aren't the nicest group of people and only one of them is a truly sympathetic character. The director, Fede Alvarez, makes this turn unpredictable. You don't expect to root for the criminals, I mean, they're robbing a blind vet. There is nothing in the set up that hints at this turn. But the audience doesn't know the secrets that are hidden in the house, we don't know the lengths the blind man will go to keep those secrets hidden. Before we even fully realize it, we've sided with the burglars and are willing them to escape.
Don't Breathe is told with a rare economy. It's a type of story telling that was popular a few decades ago, nothing extraneous, nothing superfluous. I can imagine the screenwriters, Fede Alvarez and Rodo Sayagues sitting with their script and some scissors, cutting away anything that didn't add to the story, just constantly trimming and tightening. Don't Breathe is just about the tightest film of the year. There is no fat, at no point will anyone say that it could have been twenty minutes shorter. There is no room for character building or secondary arcs or really anything that doesn't add, in some way, to the tension of the story. Look away for a moment to glance at a text, you're lost for the rest of the film. In fact, we're roughly fifteen minutes into the film when the trio is standing in the house. Where most films would spend thirty or forty minutes to get us to the action, Don't Breathe wastes no time. This is a ride to the fireworks factory that pays off.
Entering the house with the thieves, the camera swoops and flies down hallways and through floors. Taking a lesson from Panic Room, Mr. Alvarez lays out the geography of the house in relation to the burglars. We see what they see, each room and hallway and stairwell. We also see items and objects in these rooms that they don't see, things that will play a part in the story, hidden in plain sight. Really, at no point in the story is the audience ever confused by the geography of the film. Like David Fincher's tracking shot in Panic Room, the tracking shot in Don't Breathe is beautiful and dramatic and stirring but they both serve to present the stage of the action for the audience.
The personalities of the three young thieves are little more than thumbnail sketches, an elevator pitch of characterization if the elevator ride was very, very short. But in those few details the motivations of this break-in are laid out - the 8 Mile Road trailer-park girl who wants a better life for her and her little sister, the thrill-seeking tough guy boyfriend, the permanently friend-zoned friend. But in those brief character sketches lay just enough information and motivation to support any and all decision making over the course of the film. There is no Final Girl who is suddenly and inexplicably a Kung Fu master, none of the characters are suddenly experts in something that wasn't laid out in the introduction. Every decision, every motivation, everything they will do and not do comes out of those brief sketches at the beginning of the film. A fine Grosse Pointe home is broken into. One of the trio is concerned that they never cross the line into grand larceny. Another tries on clothes and jewellery. The third urinates on the floor. From these brief glimpses we will learn all we will need to know about these three thieves.
With his remake of Evil Dead in 2013, Fede Alvarez created an amazing technical achievement. A film with mostly practical effects and a new vision and and a record-setting amount of fake blood but with very little personality, 2013's Evil Dead is enjoyable but feels a little ordinary for a film with a tree rape. Outside of the horror, there was nothing singular about Mr. Alvarez' Evil Dead. Like the original, it is a great introduction to a fresh film maker who will make films unlike anyone else. Unlike the original however, there is little actually original about it. When Sam Rami and his friends bolted a camera to a 2X4 and ran through the woods, they changed film forever. There was no moment like that in the new Evil Dead, no announcement that all of the old rules don't matter. Don't Breathe is that calling card. It is fresh and original and unique. And so, so, so, so good.
By taking something like Wait Until Dark and inverting the set-up, or People Under the Stairs and removing any motivations except for the most basic and primal, Mr. Alvarez has created a film that could have come from no-one else. Don't Breathe has nothing in common with modern horror films, there is nothing supernatural hiding behind the walls of the house they're breaking into, just a blind vet with a lot of rage. Don't Breathe isn't torture porn, it isn't Saw or Cabin Fever. In fact, there is very little blood in Don't Breathe. It isn't mysteriously bloodless like most comic book movies, where the victims of violence rarely seem to bleed. And it isn't that cheat where the camera turns away at the last second. It's more like the gore and the blood is inferred, our brains filling what our eyes never see. There is an assault in Don't Breathe that bothered me more than anything in any Saw film, more than anything Eli Roth has ever put to film. It made me squirm and worry and sweat and chew my fingernails and yet, nothing really happens on screen. It's all in the performance of the actors involved and in the editing and in the directing. The scene has crawled into the dark recesses of my brain and will reside among the most horrific things I've seen in film.
Don't Breathe is suspenseful and thrilling and never, ever predictable. You will sweat, you will chew your fingernails and your popcorn will give indigestion and it will all be worth it.