Director: Fede Alvarez
Cast: Stephen Lang, Jane Levy, Dylan Minnette
Run Time: 1 hour 28 minutes
MPAA Rating: R
2016 hasn’t been, like, the worst movie year ever. I dug Deadpool. And The Nice Guys was great. There has been some good stuff around the fringes, but the actual summer season has been devastatingly barren. And now here we are in the final days of August, the last weekend that could conceivably be called “Summer.” Kids are returning to school and Hollywood is closing up shop until the holidays, rolling down the shutters with the Jason Statham sequel Mechanic: Resurrection and the R-rated horror feature Don’t Breathe from the director of 2013’s Evil Dead. It doesn’t take a genius to guess which one I went to see.
And it doesn’t take a statistician to properly predict that I was at least minorly disappointed by it.
Don’t Breathe takes place in modern horror’s favorite decrepit haunting ground: Detroit. Rocky (Jane Levy) wants to ditch her alcoholic mother and escape to California with her little sister and/or daughter Diddy (Emma Bercovici). I assumed they were sisters, but a heated ride-home conversation opened me up to a world of possibilities. Rocky and her friends Money (Daniel Zovatto of It Follows) and Alex (Dylan Minnette of Goosebumps) are small-time thieves, but they decide to do one big robbery to fund their travels.
The target? A blind veteran (Stephen Lang), who supposedly received a huge settlement after his daughter was killed in a car accident. As you might imagine, things don’t go exactly according to plan, and the trio finds themselves trapped in the house with the vicious man prowling around, using his heightened senses to track them.
Yeah, the blind guy these teens are robbing is the VILLAIN.
I was very curious to see what Fede Alvarez could do with an original horror property. His Evil Dead remake is one of the better examples of the form, converting Raimi’s DIY aesthetic into a slicker but no less gonzo gore epic. Don’t Breathe provided Alvarez with two equally important challenges: 1) To prove that he is a capable filmmaker using his own unique directorial toolbox, and 2) to bring that same sense of breathless, hyperbolic gore and horror to a film that isn’t supernatural and only has a cast of three fleshpiles to choose from.
Alvarez achieves the former with far more confidence than the latter. While he doesn’t introduce too many techniques that aren't cribbed from the Sam Raimi playbook, that’s still a rich and varied resource that he co-opts well. He gets his crane shot jollies out early on, soaring high over the Detroit streets to contrast with the tight claustrophobia of the later scenes. Then his camera is all powerful sinew, slithering behind and around his characters, showing us everything they see and especially highlighting what they don’t, spinning around its prey in a glorious celebration of its own tension. It’s not a stunningly beautiful film, but it uses the camera and jagged slashes of light to ramp up the atmosphere considerably.
Detroit’s general terrifyingness also helps a bunch.
That second challenge is where Alvarez stumbles. Not only does Don’t Breathe shy away from Grand Guignol extravagance, it seems to actively abstain from using the tools that it has set up for itself. In a fabulous early single shot sequence, the film sets up all kinds of dominos (a hidden gun, a fully loaded tool shelf, etc.) that almost entirely slip its mind. Stephen Lang punches a character in the face when there is a hacksaw behind him in that very shot. Why even have it there at all if you’re not going to make bloody use of it?
I do appreciate the film’s willingness to use Dylan Minnette as a cinematic punching bag. But the only time Don’t Breathe goes as over the top as it could (and should) have, harnessing that frenetic, gooey, Evil Dead energy, is in a deeply uncomfortable, shoehorned-in rape sequence. And therein lies the biggest flaw of the whole piece.
Inflicting bodily harm on women can achieve gross-out horror fun when it’s played the right way. You’re Next put Sharni Vinson through the winger, compounding her badassery with every injury she sustains. And Sam Raimi’s own Drag Me to Hell placed Alison Lohman in the Bruce Campbell role, using her as a slapstick crash test dummy. It can work. It’s all about proper tone management. What happens to Jane Levy in certain sequences of Don’t Breathe fails miserably to capture that. It’s ugly brutalization, as simple as that.
And it’s not like the rest of the film is unimpeachable enough that it can survive this flaw. Rocky’s backstory is marred by emotionally manipulative twaddle, desperately attempting to force feed us empathy for these three unlikeable characters, the cheapness of which is exposed by a dreadful child actress. And Don’t Breathe indulges in that eye-poppingly frustrating rope of beginning in medias res with a clip from the third act, essentially spoiling its own ending and planting a niggling seed of impatience as you wait for the movie to catch up with itself.
Whatever happened to unpredictability?
See? The second I let myself get a smidgen excited about anything this year, it’s just another disappointment ready to rear its ugly head. Don’t Breathe is one of the better disappointments of the year because it’s still a taut, stylish thriller a heart, but it’s one more uneven tile in this summer’s fresco of misery. Before we go, I would like to highlight Lang’s performance, which is viscerally chilling, using a gravelly vocality that cuts like a buzz saw. He stands out in a cast of decent but unproven young actors, and he helps goose the engine of the film when its pacing sputters. So there’s that. I don’t think I’ve felt this down about a 7/10 film before, but 2016’ll do that to ya.
TL;DR: Don't Breathe is a tense thriller without a certain spark to push it over the edge.
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