Don’t Breathe (2016)
★★★ / ★★★★
Fede Alvarez, director and co-writer of “Don’t Breathe,” takes inspiration from great horror-thrillers which utilize space effectively in order to establish, sustain, and release tension. At one point, there is reference to an excellent scene in John Carpenter’s “Halloween” where the heroine is trapped in a confined space with her attacker. What results is a picture that, although not original, is highly watchable and consistently entertaining because the equation is feverishly being evaluated as complex factors are introduced to it.
The material is light on character development which can be overlooked due to its fast pacing. The respective motivations of the three burglars (Dylan Minnette, Jane Levy, Daniel Zovatto) who decide to break into the house of a blind man (Stephen Lang) and steal six figures worth of cash are simple and clear, each one given a specific place on the moral spectrum. Character depth is icing on the cake but not necessary in a film like this.
Silence can be deafening considering the fact that the faintest noise, like the creaking of the floorboards, can alert the blind man, who is not as innocent as he seems, to the location of burglars-turned-potential-victims. Standout scenes involve silence partnered with tightly controlled lighting that create ominous shadows and the camera pans around the room—we wait in careful anticipation when the silence will be shattered and it is time for the thieves to move briskly in order to have a chance at survival.
Although the story for the most part takes place inside two-story house with a basement, it gives the impression that every room is utilized to its maximum capacity. We grow familiar to the layout of the home with dark and tragic secrets. Notice that just about every space revisited later in the picture contains a memory involving the unsuspecting trio, whether it be the hall in front of the door to the basement, the closet, the laundry room, the homeowner’s bedroom, the front door leading to freedom… or at least an impression of it.
Lang plays the blind man with a convincing air of dominance. Despite the character’s inability to see, highly memorable are instances when he uses his hands to pummel the trespassers into unconsciousness. The sheer brutality of it is not found in his eyes or even his arms—but the hands: they are like sharp branches one second, a steel hammer the next. The camera sits still when his hands are used, less still when a gun is involved.
“Don’t Breathe” is relentless, even in the manner in which the story ends. I admired that there is neither an easy nor a clean-cut happy ending. With the kind of brutality that transpires in that Detroit home, it is clear that no one should walk away unchanged physically and internally. That kind of trauma sticks around for years, if not till it’s time to check out.