Don’t Breathe is the second film from Fede Alvarez, the man who directed the lean, underrated Evil Dead remake – so you know it’s going to be rife with twists, turns and bloody scares.
What you might not expect is the way it crosses some lines in the final act – one that makes sense for the situation and one that goes way too far. Remove the second crossing of lines and you have a Grade A thriller, but with it, it manages – through muscular direction and solid performances – to avoid dropping into mediocrity.
We meet Money (Daniel Zovatto, It Follows, Fear the Walking Dead), Rocky (Jane Levy, Suburgatory, Evil Dead) and Alex (Dylan Minnette, Saving Grace, Goosebumps) as they break into a posh home – the owners are away and Alex’s dad works for their security alarm company so he has a key and a remote kill switch (apparently, they’ve been doing this for a while).
Following the caper, we see their individual circumstances: Money is a hustler looking to make enough money to get out Detroit (with Rocky); Rocky and a much younger sister live in an abusive/neglectful household and she wants to get her sister out of there, and Alex’s dad is the only reason he doesn’t want to leave town with the other two.
Then they discover what seems to be an easy target that will provide them with enough money to actually get them out of town – the lone inhabited house in a less lovely section of Detroit where a blind veteran (Stephen Lang) lives. The blind man has apparently got a lot of money – a settlement that kept the teenage girl who killed his daughter in a car accident out of jail.
Even better, the old man’s security system is by the same company that Alex’s dad works for.
The script, by Alvarez and Rodo Sayagues (Evil Dead), plunges the trio of home invaders into all kinds of obstacles, starting with a vicious guard dog they have to drug to get into the house – and multiple locks on the front door (Alex’s dad only has one key…).
What follows is an exercise in how not to rob a blind ex-military guy – Money has brought a gun, prompting Alex to want out; the blind guy is smart and not an invalid, and when things go wrong, they go wrong loudly.
Alvarez balances long, tension filled sequences with carefully timed edits that add to the film’s momentum at judicious intervals. The film’s score, by Roque Baños (The Machinist, Evil Dead), is percussive and/or eerie and unnervingly subtle when cuing jump moments.
The cinematography, by Pedro Luque, makes the blind man’s house a warren of corridors and is especially effective in ‘lights out’ segments which have the feel of a black & white photo negative (a nice, simple effect that packs a punch).
Don’t Breathe ramps up the stakes when we discover that blind man has a nasty secret (or two) that makes it impossible to root for him, and the trio of home invaders aren’t especially great people, either (though Rocky does that sister she needs to get out of that crappy household, so there is one lone source of potential redemption).
The big problem is the blind man’s secret nasty secret – the audience at the screening I attended found it to be a step (or six) too far (snickers of disbelief could be heard) – especially in the way it plays out after the first moment of revelation.
Once past the big reveals, the film goes back to its more effective aspects – finally rolling credits after a few fake-out endings and setting up a potential sequel.
It’s all brilliantly done, in term of filmmaking: the direction, performances, effects and sound are all extremely good (maybe even better than Alvarez’s Evil Dead) – and if the second nasty secret was removed, Don’t Breathe would be the best thriller of the year to date.
Instead, it drops to a significantly lower grade. Pity.
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Photos courtesy Screen Gems/Sony