Apparently the biggest star of this year’s horror films was darkness itself. Twice in a short time have we seen movies that serve to bring out that primal fear of not knowing what it hides. In Lights Out, which I will probaly talk about more in October, a dangerous creature appears wherever shadows are cast and light has little to no reach. In Don’t Breathe, an old man who’s very much used to seeing nothing subjects a trio of burglars to the pitch blackness he sees every day, and then uses his remaining senses to hunt them down.
Directed and partially written by Fede Alvarez (the seemingly forgotten Evil Dead remake), the film premiered at the South by Southwest festival in March but didn’t reach theaters until the past couple of weeks. The trailers got me hooked (it’s the first time in ages I haven’t skipped a YouTube ad), the reviews made me even more interested and the viewing was both sickly exhilerating and grisly in the best sense of the word.
We begin by getting to know Rocky (Jane Levy), who comes from a broken Detroit home with a cruel mother and a much younger sister. She has a boyfriend, called Money (Daniel Zovatto), and a hopeless admirer named Alex (Dylan Minnette), whose father works in security and thus holds keys to many of the households in the suburbia. Thanks to this, the three delinquents spend their time breaking into people’s homes and making money on stolen goods. It’s like Facebook pages without the fanbase. I can’t take that back, nor do intend to.
One night they target the home of an elderly Blind Man played by Stephen Lang, who is awoken by their entry and anxiously gets up to look for them. At first, this makes our anti-heroes (sans the always ruthless Money) feel remorseful about what they’ve done, but it isn’t long until the Blind Man’s true colors reveal themselves and a nail-biting and claustraphobic cat-and-mice game commences. It’s hard to know who to root for, yes, but having a number of morally ambigious characters confront each other in this way is still intriguing. It worked for Quentin Tarantino in The Hateful Eight, right?
I don’t know if the nature of the Blind Man is meant to be a “twist” (some of the reviews I’ve read seem to insist as much), seeing as it’s given away in the trailers and implied by the tagline. I didn’t issue a spoiler warning on this review since I believe that, even in the age of Terminator 5 and Batman v Superman, we can’t possibly be that bad at keeping plot secrets from being given away completely by a film’s marketing.
There were some select moments in Don’t Breathe that struck me as unintentionally humorous and a sequel hook that seemed, to put it mildly, totally unnecessary. Ultimately, however, I strongly enjoyed it. I appreciated seeing so much of it in real time, with plenty of long shots that give us a great idea of what the interior of the house looks like, and tension that rises at a nigh perfect pace. I also liked Stephen Lang significantly more here than in Avatar. Now I’m definitely sure I want him to play Cable when they produce the unavoidable follow-up to Deadpool.
That said, I do speculate that this film doesn’t evoke the same harrowing paranoia as Lights Out does (at least judging from the comments some of my more reliable friends have made about it), which is about a malicious being that hides in the dark and can attack you anywhere. You don’t really need to worry about the scenario in Don’t Breathe unless you break into old folks’ houses for a living, in which case you probably deserve whatever befalls you afterwards. Nevertheless, Alvarez and his cast and crew do a proficient job at making the viewer relate to the characters’ claustraphobia and the intensity they must feel as the faintest noise they make could cause their death.
Don’t Breathe is remarkably intense and discomforting for (just about) the entirity of its runtime, sweetly brutal in its violence, refreshing in its use of night-vision as opposed to dark-blue lighting to simulate dimness, and performed just as expertly as it is shot and directed. But as per always, what I recommend is not that you see this film at a busy theater in the company of excitable idiots who shriek and chatter with their friends upon so much as the slightest movement of a background prop, but rather that you wait for a home release, pop the disc into a system of your choice, and watch it all alone with your lights switched off.
You can thank me right now.