Don’t Breathe is an aptly named horror thriller from Fede Alvarez, the writer-director of 2013’s Evil Dead remake. It’s an exercise of suspense and tension that leaves audiences breathless.
During the night, three teenagers break into a blind man’s home with the intent of stealing his fortune. But where other films would frame the invaders as villains, Alvarez and co-author Rodo Sayagues cleverly invert this dynamic. Don’t Breathe’s protagonists are the thieves breaking into an unfamiliar home, and its antagonist is the blind man who lives there and ultimately terrorizes them.
But the ambitious choices made by Alvarez and Sayagues don’t stop with the film’s premise. Rather than wasting time on hamfisted character development, Don’t Breathe jumps straight into the action. In fact, the vast majority of the runtime is spent inside the blind man’s home, with the teenagers fearing for their lives.
What’s so amazing about this choice is how well it works. Remaining in one house heightens the tension and the stakes. For as long as they stays there, the protagonists are never safe and the viewers are deeply anxious. Likewise, the minimal character development is surprisingly effective at framing teenage thieves as acceptable protagonists.
More importantly, however, this abbreviated exposition hides Don’t Breathe’s biggest flaw: its characters.
Frankly, the characters suck. Money (Daniel Zovatto) is a wannabe gangster and the trio’s leader. His girlfriend, Rocky (Jane Levy), is a stereotype from a damaged home, seeking a better life. Then there’s Alex (Dylan Minnette), a soft-spoken boy whom audiences are supposed to assume to be nice and sweet. Even the unnamed blind man (Stephen Lang) is sloppily developed as a grief-stricken veteran with secrets of his own. The film dedicates maybe 15 clunky, awkward minutes to these characters’ backgrounds, and it almost feels like too much.
Yet Don’t Breathe still manages to be a suspenseful thriller, with credit largely due to the directorial choices made by Alvarez. Early in the film, he gives the audience an incredible spatial awareness of the blind man’s claustrophobic home with a long single take that veers in and out of rooms as the teenagers explore it. Often, he lets scenes run for long stretches of time without any additional music or sound effects. During these moments, the only noises that cut through the silence are the heavy panting of the characters. Last but not least, Alvarez brilliantly uses night vision on the face of his subjects as they wander through the dark, bringing the tension to new heights.
Some of these decisions may not appear brightly innovative. Opting for periods of silence can almost seem like a logical afterthought in a horror film. But collectively these are smart, well-executed choices that serve to maximize the movie’s suspense.
Don’t Breathe is far from perfect. Its characters are total drags, and the action sequences are littered with instances that prompt viewers to remark, “Well, wasn’t that convenient?”
Yet these flaws never prove detrimental enough to kill its overall effect. Rather, a handful of decisions made by Alvarez and Sayagues emphasize and enhance the very qualities that make it appealing. Unrelenting tension and suspense make Don’t Breathe one of the better horror films of 2016.
MOVE gives Don’t Breathe 3 out of 5 stars.