“Don’t Breathe” nails nearly everything most scary movies get wrong. I say “nearly everything” because, like many horror films, it goes off the rails at the end. I didn’t care, though. I’d had so much fun up to that point, I was in a forgiving mood.
The story couldn’t be more simple: three young adults decide to steal $300,000 cash from the home of a blind military veteran; he doesn’t want them to have it, and chaos ensues.
Controlled chaos would be a better way of putting it. Director Fede Alvarez, who helmed the “Evil Dead” reboot released in 2013, has an impressive grasp of the film’s geography. The heist takes place in an old house in an abandoned Detroit neighborhood. Before the friends enter the home, Alvarez takes us on a tour of the exterior. Through skillful editing and shot selection, we learn where all of the entrances and exits are, including a cellar door that’s bolted on the inside, and that all of the windows are barred.
Alvarez continues his tour once the threesome is inside. Before it’s over, he shows us nearly every nook and cranny of the house, including the locations of weapons and a few good places to hide. As a result, I never felt lost, or wondered where someone was, and as a character was being backed into a corner, I knew what waited there for him and how he could use it. Instead of squeezing all of the suspense out of the film, this knowledge heightened it; I knew what could happen, even though it seemed like things weren’t going to turn out as they should.
All of this might seem like Filmmaking 101. But I can’t count the number of thrillers or horror films I’ve watched that failed to establish a sense of space. This leads to a frustrating viewing experience.
Of course, one of the elements of a good scary movie are the surprises – the things that come out of the shadows in a room or the hearts of the characters. Alvarez knows this, and for a time keeps what’s behind one locked door hidden. The door functions on both a physical and a metaphorical level, as opening it reveals not only what lies behind it but also something dark buried within the soul of the occupant of the house.
Once Alvarez has put all of his pieces in place, like a chess savant who has set up the board and planned his strategy, he begins moving them. The aged veteran can’t see, but his hearing is acute, and the house is old and creaky. There’s a scene in which he’s in a room with the three friends, only he doesn’t know how many of them there are. As he waves his gun around and the intruders freeze like statues and hold their breath, Alvarez mutes the sound, which made me tense up as I waited for one of the thieves to breathe too loudly. The director’s use of sound, and the absence of sound, borders on brilliant.
As I mentioned, chaos does eventually ensue, and when it does, Alvarez uses the film’s setting to create several nail-biting sequences. There are close calls, cunning misdirects, and some brutal action, all of which were nicely choreographed, framed, and shot. I don’t want to overhype the movie, but several sequences in “Don’t Breathe” had members of the audience with which I saw the film screaming.
“Don’t Breathe” works as well as it does because it at least feels like everything was planned out before the cameras rolled, beginning with the script. Alvarez co-wrote the film with one other writer, and clearly thought through not just the story but the characters as well.
All too often, the victims in a horror movie are nothing more than sentient pieces of meat waiting for the slaughter. But Alvarez has only four individuals at his disposal, so he must be economical with the deaths, and those moments must have impact. So, in “Don’t Breathe,” he encourages us to care about each person. Of the three friends, one is a single mother who wants to give her daughter a better life, one is a young man who secretly loves the mother and wants to avoid hurting anyone, and the third one is a thug. (I’ll let you guess who dies first.) Likewise, the veteran lives alone, mourning the loss of his adolescent daughter in an accident many years earlier.
Alvarez did clever things with these characters. With one exception, he gives each of them a reason for us to pull for them – and a reason for us to dislike them. Do you applaud the mother, who wants to escape a living hell but is willing to rob a blind elderly man to do it? Or do you cheer on the veteran, who’s been dealt terrible blows in life, but has a secret that will shift your sympathies? Alvarez leaves it up to you.
“Don’t Breathe” is a terrific thriller built from the ground up to provide a compelling and tense experience. I recoiled a bit from the zaniness at the end, but I left the theater exhilarated anyway. Alvarez engages the viewer at every level, and in so doing created a rare bond between filmmaker and audience. This in turn made “Don’t Breathe” a very satisfying film to watch. If you see it, don’t forget to inhale.