“Don’t Breathe” (BIFAN 2016): Home Robbery Goes Haywire in Pulse-Pounding Thriller

American horror thriller Don’t Breathe is a fast-paced, nerve-wracking ride filled with suspense. I hadn’t felt as tense watching a film on the big screen in too long a time as I did seeing this one.

The basic plot from director/cowriter Fede Alvarez and cowriter Rodo Sayagues (both of whom performed the same duties on the 2013 remake of Evil Dead) starts out deceptively simple. Rocky (Jane Levy, who also starred in Alvarez’s Evil Dead) is a troubled young woman who lives in her Detroit home with her younger sister, an abusive mother, and the mother’s abusive boyfriend. Rocky wants to escape with the preschool-aged girl to another state but lacks the funds to do so. She has been committing a series of small-time home robberies with her loud-mouthed, no-goodnik boyfriend Money (Daniel Zovatto of It Follows [2014]) and her milder-mannered friend Alex (Dylan Minnette, familiar to genre film fans for Let Me In [2010] and Goosebumps [2015]), who has an obvious crush on her.

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Jane Levy stars as Rocky, a desperate young woman who robs homes to get by, in Don’t Breathe.

The trio hears about an opportunity to rob the home of a war veteran (Stephen Lang of Avatar [2009]) who is said to have a large amount of money on hand because of a family tragedy in his past. When the group discovers that he is blind, Money insists that they forego any reluctance and follow their original plan to rob him. Soon the simple story becomes more and more complex, as the trio discovers that the man has taken care to protect himself against intruders. What was up to this point a home invasion story becomes a nightmarish white-knuckle suspenser that barely gives viewers a chance to catch their breath between the many surprises that Don’t Breathe holds.

The screenplay from Fede Alvarez and Rodo Sayagues is fraught with a high level of tension. Those interested in seeing Don’t Breathe should avoid learning any more about the film’s intricacies if they want maximum effect during their initial viewing – and this is the type of movie that many will want to see more than once. I would even advise against watching the trailer because it gives away a few important moments. Alvarez’s direction is gripping, adroitly combining varied camera techniques and special effects with the skillful help of cinematographer Pedro Luque, whose cameras creep around and capably capture production designer Namaan Marshall’s masterfully rendered sets in the robbery victim’s home. The first-rate sound design often leaves the characters and viewers in total silence, adding to the eeriness, and Roque Banos’s score sets the film’s moods swimmingly. The editing from the team of Eric L. Beason, Louise Ford, and Gardner Gould is often fast-paced but never annoyingly so. Fede Alvarez and his editing team know when and how to slow things down to build up tension to an almost unbearable amount. Though there are a few jump scares, they are well earned. Jump scares are not what Alvarez and Don’t Breathe are going for, though. This is good, old-fashioned steadily building suspense in a modern package.

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Alex (Dylan Minnette) and Rocky (Jane Levy) witness something that makes them realize breaking into the house they did could be the biggest mistake of their lives.

Great horror movies almost always need to give viewers characters to cheer for to get us emotionally involved in the proceedings. Don’t Breathe takes an unusual but successful approach by introducing viewers to three serial robbers and their blind victim who, in the film’s intriguing opening aerial shot, is seen doing something that lets us know he is capable of committing his own questionable deeds. By the way, though that opening scene looks great, I feel that it gives away a major spoiler for the rest of the film, so I wonder about the decision to give viewers that information right up front. Without that scene, viewer allegiances might go a whole different way during the first act.

The performances are solid throughout, especially Stephen Lang as the take-no-prisoners blind man who is determined to avoid becoming a victim of a home invasion. Jane Levy brings a fair amount of sympathy to her antihero role as Rocky. Dylan Minnette is good as the suddenly-in-over-his-head friend who has unrequited amorous feelings for Rocky, which gives him motivation for not just bailing out when the going gets brutally rough. Daniel Zovatto acquits himself well in one of those “you just know that character is going to get his” roles.

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Alex (Dylan Minnette) tries to follow the advice given in the film’s title as a blind war veteran (Stephen Lang) attempts to find and punish him.

Don’t Breathe is more thriller than horror film, but its horror aspects are creepy and gruesome enough to satisfy most fright-fare aficionados. Fede Alvarez has toned down the gore here from his version of Evil Dead, while elevating the tension to a higher level, and I think it works for the better for this film. Don’t Breathe provides 80-some minutes of creepy, fingernail-chewing fun, and I highly recommend it.

Don’t Breathe had its Asian premiere at South Korea’s Bucheon International Fantastic Film Festival (BIFAN) in July. The film’s Korean title is Man in the Dark.

Don’t Breathe: (4 / 5)

Note: this review was originally published on 8/3/2016, republished for US release of the film.

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Joseph Perry
Joseph Perry’s formative years were spent watching classic monster movies (starting with "The Creature from the Black Lagoon" and "Godzilla Vs. the Thing") and TV series (starting with "The Twilight Zone" and "Outer Limits"), Bob Wilkins’ "Creature Features" and Roy Shires’ Big Time Wrestling (two northern California legends); reading Silver Age and Bronze Age Gold Key, Dell, Charlton, Marvel, and DC comics; and writing mimeographed newsletters about the original "Planet of the Apes" film and TV series. More recently, he has written for "Filmfax" magazine, is the foreign correspondent reporter for the "Horror News Radio" podcast, and is a regular contributing writer to "Phantom of the Movies’s VideoScope" magazine, occasionally proudly co-writing articles with his son Cohen Perry, who is a film critic in his own right. A former northern Californian and Oregonian, Joseph has been teaching, writing, and living in South Korea since 2008.