Thursday, September 22, 2016

Don't Breathe

DON’T BREATHE (Fede Alvarez, 2016)

Rocky (Jane Levy), her boyfriend Money (Daniel Zovatto), and their friend Alex (Dylan Minnette) keep cash in their pockets by breaking into houses and committing small thefts in the Detroit area in DON’T BREATHE. Alex’s father runs a home security company, so the three thieves know how to disable the systems and have access to keys for the properties they target. Rocky and Money are eager to skip town for California but need a big score to make that possible.

Rumor has it that a blind Gulf War veteran (Stephen Lang) has squirreled away a large amount of cash from a lawsuit over his daughter’s wrongful death in a car accident. The blind man lives alone in a neighborhood that has been otherwise abandoned. From scouting his place, it appears that he doesn’t leave very often, which would be a problem for them in almost every other instance. Ordinarily they wouldn’t rob a residence when someone is in it, but based on the homeowner’s visual impairment and the supposed $300,000 waiting to be taken, they decide it is worth the risk. Things don’t go according to plan, though. The blind man becomes aware of the intruders in his home and locks them in with the intention of killing them.

Although the blind man’s home has numerous points of egress, director and co-writer Fede Alvarez does nimble work in eliminating escape routes for the thieves to maintain the tension. When they find what seems like a sure way out, the option is inevitably removed for a sound reason. Alvarez treats the house as a labyrinth whose dead ends also contain some unwelcome surprises. Rather than battering the audience with lots of quick cuts and a clamorous soundtrack, DON’T BREATHE provides space via longer, smooth shots to let the dread-raising hunt develop and through the quiet stillness necessary for the hunted to avoid detection.

For all of the solid effort put into sustaining a high degree of uncertainty regarding who will endure the ordeal, DON’T BREATHE’s brief, in media res opening seems like a significant dramatic mistake. With the limited number of characters trying to flee the house, revealing one of those who will survive at least close to the film’s conclusion reduces much of the guesswork and thrills related to this person’s path to that point. It isn’t a fatal error, as Alvarez is skilled at conveying the urgency of individual moments, but the choice seems misguided in view of the care put into the thriller’s suspenseful design.

Although DON’T BREATHE features no conventional heroes, Lang’s blind man is, without question, the villain. The character already is at an advantage by knowing the layout of the house, and with some scenes occurring in near or total darkness, his blindness can serve as an edge he holds over his prey. Lang’s rippling arms and intense demeanor solidify his position as the predator. The thieves, while clearly on the wrong side of the law, are in over their heads. Levy in particular registers the terror of the situation and the instinctive will to live beyond the traumatic experience. The requirement to hint at potential sequels is a lamentable staple of the genre--continuing this story seems like a fool’s errand--but it doesn’t undermine the scares DON’T BREATHE musters.

Grade: B

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