Have you ever had a dream where you were being chased?
In this dream, were you being pursued by a faceless monster? Or perhaps you were being stalked by a familiar presence in the waking world? In Fede Alvarez’s Don’t Breathe, this nightmarish monster has a face, and it is the face of Stephen Lang. The question is, however, is he a monster at all? Through the film’s run-time, you might feel prompted to discern between your own moral code and primal will to survive despite it (presenting that classic morality vs. mortality thing).
While moral triggers exist peripheral to its subtext, Don’t Breathe isn’t really interested in ethics and likely cares very little about which ‘side’ you are on. Don’t Breathe is more interested in making you fluctuate between startled gasps, holding your breath, and cardiac arrest. If my theory is true, then goal: accomplished.
What’s It All About, Rocky?
Don’t Breathe centers around three burglars in Detroit who break into wealthy homes in the area to fund their hopes of getting out of town. With access to his father’s security business, Alex (Dylan Minnette) is able to get them in and out of the homes without triggering any alarms, so when Money (Daniel Zovatto) hears about a man in their area who received a cash settlement following the death of his daughter, they decide to move forward. The fact that he’s blind makes him seem like an even easier target than their previous ones, so the risk is low, right?
Their plan begins to unravel from the start, and the miscalculations surrounding this invasion swiftly build tension between each other, and ultimately, the audience. The keys they brought don’t work on the doors, Rocky (Jane Levy) has trouble locating the alarm system to deactivate it, and the audience is left squirming in their seats until she does. Alex is tentative about the whole process, but with money as the catalyst for their freedom, stopping does not appear to be an option.
Still, nothing in their plan comes as unexpected to them as the moment The Blind Man (as he is credited) wakes up. What follows is a very twisted game of cat and mouse where the line between predator and prey is very thin. We come to learn that his handicap might be more of a strength than a weakness.
His senses are heightened with the omission of sight – making silence the only hope for Rocky, Alex and Money’s survival. The house itself becomes an allegory to their dysfunctional circumstances at home, and in that, they must first escape the grips of it in order to escape the afflictions of their demons outside of it.
Combining the haunting and expressive performances by Lang, Levy and Minnette with the masterful cinematography and sound design resulted in Don’t Breathe being one of the best thrillers I have seen in a theater this year. With movies like Green Room and The Neon Demon in its wake, Don’t Breathe holds its own despite falling prey to character archetypes used to ubiquitous exhaustion and a latter quarter of the film falling flatter than a pancake. But more on that later.
Art Imitates ARt
There is no avoiding it: Don’t Breathe is highly referential to other works of cinema. Whether Alvarez wished to merely pay homage to these films or pulled identical ideas from other cinematic works is beyond me. Though the film has an exciting and unique premise, there are certain elements that felt familiar to me.
I have thus formed several conclusions about such references. For one, The Blind Man and Silence of the Lambs’ Buffalo Bill definitely share the same labyrinthine basement layout (as further shown with a Panic Room-style omnipotent shot of the house).
Furthermore, The Blind Man is a sight-impared-war-veteran version of Home Alone’s Kevin McCallister, Audrey Hepburn was a more reasonable blind person in Wait Until Dark, and Marshall Mather’s mom in 8 Mile and Rocky’s mom are the same person (which I can only deduce to mean that Rocky is Eminem’s sister).
So, I will leave it up to you, dear reader, to decide if you think these correlations are imitative or referential.
Sight & Sound
Don’t Breathe subjects you to ferocious currents of sound that reverberate and echo long after the film has finished. In fact, it was only after I completed this movie that I came to further appreciate the masterful craft involved in its making. Spanish film composer Roque Baños curated sounds in a way that ultimately anthropomorphized the house in which the home invasion takes place, but the most important aspect of sound he obtained was in the form of Alex Ferris.
The creators involved in the musical aspects of the film landed on a goldmine (i.e. divine junkyard) with Ferris, the creator of Anarchestra, who invents and builds his own instruments constructed primarily out of domestic items such as pipes, wires and car parts. Elements such as wood, steel, and water are used in a way that feels very primal and ancestral, thus adding to the predator/prey circumstance within the film. Baños’ decision to use Ferris’ incredible household creations in this orchestral way was brilliant because the final product gives a voice to the voiceless – the allegorical house becomes a living and breathing thing.
Pedro Luque’s cinematographic style combined with Naaman Marshall’s production design gives Don’t Breathe a sense of grandiosity that was both unexpected and deeply appreciated. While there are near direct correlations to be made between the visual decisions of this film and others, most of the elements at play here are distinctive unto itself.
Along with the humbling visual exposition of Detroit were impactful shots that presses you up against the threat at hand. The interchange between murky green darkness and hyperrealistic neon clarity make for a riveting visual experience that I will not soon forget.
Things Fall Apart: The Case Of The Turkey Baster
Now comes the time when I must talk about that latter fourth of Don’t Breathe – the dreaded final quarter which ought not exist in a film that had been so good up until that point. In an effort not to spoil anything, I will refrain from any details aside from one: this film lost me when a turkey baster became involved.
Much to my chagrin, Don’t Breathe stumbled clumsily down a stairwell of trope-infested stupidity and ill-placed kitchenware in the final quarter and it never got back up. After the nail-biting, heart attack-inducing cinematic experience that preceded it, this ending left me (and the rest of the audience) laughing at its absurdity. It was exactly what I didn’t want to happen in the end.
What were once forgivably overdrawn character archetypes now become painfully highlighted caricatures of themselves. You can’t deny that Jane Levy gives a great performance throughout, but admittedly, her character makes decisions that are foolish enough to almost make you root against her. Her acting unfortunately does not become a much-needed deus ex machina in the end, but I sincerely look forward to more performances from her in the future.
Let’s Pretend That Didn’t Happen (And Other Conclusions)
Don’t Breathe is interlaced with moments of terrifying brilliance and grounded in primal scares that demand your attention. It is a memorable auditory experience filled with moments so disquieting that you might find yourself curling up in your seat in anticipation of what might come next. I would like to see more movies like the first 75% of Don’t Breathe, and I especially hope that this is not the last time we hear Anarchestra or see Jane Levy in a film.
The movie as a whole tests your loyalty and explores your own ability to persevere alongside the characters within it. With tension as ceaseless as their desire to escape, the threat of capture overwhelms and consumes them in a way that transmitted directly to me as I watched. So, the next time you are being chased in a dream, be sure to tell me if the monster pursuing you is Stephen Lang.
What other promising movies do you think fell apart at the end? Did it ruin the movie’s entirety for you or was it something you could look past?
Don’t Breathe has wide-release in theaters now.
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