After remaking Evil Dead in 2013, director Fede Alvarez is back with his sophomore feature Don't Breathe, a startling, twisty thriller that's one of the most intense theatrical experiences I've had this year.
Co-writer/Director: Fede Alvarez
Starring: Jane Levy, Dylan Minnette, Stephen Lang
Alvarez and his co-writer Rodo Sayagues set up their premise with a brutally efficient screenplay that establishes everything we need to know in the first few minutes. Rocky (Jane Levy) dreams of leaving Detroit with her younger sister and leaving their terrible family life behind, but she's short on cash. So she and her wannabe gangsta boyfriend Money (Daniel Zovatto) team up with her friend Alex (Dylan Minnette) — who is harboring a major crush on Rocky — to rob houses. Alex's dad works at a security firm, so Alex has easy access to codes that allow them to break into places, steal a few things they can sell, and bail without incident. But Rocky gets fed up with playing the long game and wants to cash in on a huge payday: a blind veteran (a terrifying Stephen Lang) lives in an abandoned section of town and is supposed to have $300,000 in a lock box. Despite Alex's protests, they ultimately decide to go for it, but they quickly realize that they've chosen the wrong old man to mess with. He may be blind, but he knows his house and its dark hallways and basement corridors better than they do, and he's far more dangerous than he looks.
The director utilizes every classical filmmaking trick in the book to heighten suspense, but the movie never feels gimmicky or staged. Early on, he reveals the entire layout of the house with one long continuous shot, familiarizing the audience with every nook and cranny so when the sh*t hits the fan, we're right there with the lead characters and know all of their options for where to hide — and where all of the potential weapons are. In a movie where silence is so important, an A+ use of sound design is essential, and this is one of the areas the film really shines: every creak of the floorboards could mean life or death, and my audience was so engaged, they seemed to be leaning forward in anticipation the entire time.
Without getting too spoilery, I'll mention a few things I didn't particularly care for. At one point Alvarez revels in creating this ultra-disturbing, looming threat of sexual violence, mixing gross-out visuals with a growing sense of dread that got under my skin in a big way. I'll let you watch the movie to figure out what I'm alluding to, but it's one of the film's most unforgettable aspects...and not necessarily in a good way. The opening shot starts in media res, and we quickly flash back and experience nearly the whole movie as a lead-up to that moment; the unfortunate side effect of this, of course, is that some of the tension is removed because we know the story is eventually going to come back around to the events of the opening shot. (I suppose an argument could be made that simply knowing the action contained in the opening shot is coming adds a level of terror to everything that happens before it, because there's an inevitability to the proceedings that can't be escaped. It may function like that for some, but it didn't for me.) And while I wouldn't dream of ruining the ending, I'll just say that I wasn't crazy about the way the final scene concluded.
Don't Breathe definitely got under my skin and made me feel super uncomfortable, but that's clearly the reaction Alvarez wants us to have. I haven't seen his version of Evil Dead, but I heard that movie has a similar devil-may-care attitude about keeping its audience happy; he seems like a filmmaker who doesn't give a crap if his movies make you uneasy, he's just thrilled to have been able to needle you and provoke an emotional (or sometimes physical) response. So while I didn't necessarily love what happened in this movie, I can't deny the skill it took to make it work so well. With plenty of twists and turns you don't see coming, Don't Breathe has definitely skyrocketed Alvarez near the top of my list of directors to keep an eye on. If this film's quality is an indication of the level of his future projects, we may be witnessing the rise of a new master storyteller — albeit one with a slightly sadistic bent.