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Don't Breathe (Movie Review)


Home Alone 5: Kevin's Revenge

Don't Breathe is a 2016 American Horror film, directed and co-written (with Rodo Sayagues) by Fede Alvarez. A gang of three Detroit thieves; played by Jane Levy, Daniel Zovatto and Dylan Minette, have made a career for themselves by robbing rich people, trashing their homes and selling their possessions. When they decide to steal from who they think would be an easy target -a blind Army veteran (Stephen Lang) with $300,000 in hiding- they get more than they bargained for. Trapped in the house of a trained killer, the thieves are now caught in a fight to escape with their lives. Being able to skilfully distance itself from the worn trend of paranormal jump scares for the sake of jump scares, Don't Breathe intertwines a unique premise with expert direction to create what almost seems like a genre within a genre.

Not bad for playing generic thieves, though anyone could have played them.

Firstly, one of the most enthralling ingredients put into Don't Breathe is the casting of Stephen Lang in the completion of the character as The Blind Man. With what seems to be every horror film having some paranormal-themed ghost; demon, or monster as its antagonist, more films in the genre are seeming to lose originality. However, we've come to accept most as the scare-fest in our local cinema at the time, and often an engaging story is swapped for an endurance test of jump scares. Don't Breathe stands out with its simplicity of a human threat. On paper, you don't believe this would really be a horror. Maybe a suspense-thriller at best. Onscreen, Stephen Lang as The Blind Man makes you feel on edge whenever onscreen, even when just standing there in the hallway because you have no idea what will happen next. Lang has less than 13 lines of total dialogue in the film. The majority of the time, he's a silent and unpredictable killer with a particular set of skills even Liam Neeson would hesitate to go up against. If he hears something vibrate, he will shoot it point blank range without a moment's notice. Lang brilliantly captures the character of a man who appears frail and unable to defend himself who is suddenly revealed as a terrifying monster.

The best I've seen of Stephen Lang to date.

Talking about Lang's effectiveness as The Blind Man and Don’t Breathe’s unique individuality as a horror come down to the genuine craftsmanship of its director. Fede Alvarez has co-written and choreographed the execution of Don’t Breathe’s camera work, pacing and simplicity of premise and it blends together into a cocktail of tension and payed off suspense. Don’t Breathe doesn't take long to get going. It lets you know in a matter of around 15 minutes that these three thieves are scum. Scum with their own reasons, but scum who steal from people nonetheless. Before you know it, you’re seeing these three in the house of a blind killer, realising they’ve bit off more than they can chew. Tension never drops from this point onwards. There are moments of complete silence but the game of cat and mouse between the thieves and The Blind Man never stops you feeling on edge. It even misdirects you. You see the thieves trying one method of escape, that has you thinking about how they’ll be thwarted and it shocks you with something different entirely. Wipes, zooms and silence are handled in a way that even a single breath in a moment of silence by one of the thieves will make you gasp as you see the close-up on The Blind Man’s face. This is the kind of cinematography that has viewers analysing what has been put into the scene’s structure and why it so effective. It will only make you want to go back to view for a second time and think “that was a damn good scene”.

Your eyes will ironically widen in suspense.

Examples like those aforementioned are the reason why the jump scares in Don’t Breathe are actually genuine. There are such long periods of silence, unease and shock that you wouldn’t even think of them as jump scares. That’s because, unlike your average horror, like certain involved paranormal activities *cough cough*, Don’t Breathe takes it’s time. The fact that the antagonist is a blind war veteran (unless you think the thieves are the baddies. Depends how you look at it) who is a human threat instead of some invisible voodoo spirit, has really given Alvarez the chance to surprise you. There are moments when you think something/someone is going to jump out but doesn’t. You think a situation is going to escalate in one way but spins the chase on its head entirely. You’re in the middle of scenes where instead of a loud thud and an instant scream occurring, something quietly reveals itself onscreen, leaving you to search the screen and find it yourself. Don’t Breathe doesn’t hold your hand and patronise you like a 15 year old watching The Woman in Black 2. It takes it’s time and builds up tension effectively until it’s sure you can be frightened in a justified manner. This is how the scare-factor in a horror should really communicate with its audience.

When you're favourite Game of Thrones character dies.

A real gripe with the film would be its very beginning. It starts with what appears to be a plot-hinting part of the story in the film’s third act. Once things kick into gear and chaos ensues, you pick up what may and may not happen based on what you’ve seen in the first minute. It takes away some of Don’t Breathe's amazing unpredictability. A second negative of Don’t Breathe is something that might not be a negative for everyone, but the “who’s the actual villain?” question between the thieves and The Blind Man, is all dependent on how you look at it: at the start of the third act, the straightforward premise of Don’t Breathe suddenly takes a 45 degree turn with an unexpected twist. It’s definitely what you wouldn’t have expected and following events definitely make your jaw drop slightly. It certainly doesn’t drag the film down beyond saving but it feels like Don’t Breathe went back on itself. Don’t Breathe’s strength comes from its initial simplicity of thieving degenerates trying to take advantage of what appears to be a weak, old man who can’t see and unexpectedly end up becoming the victims themselves. On the other hand, without the twist, the well-oiled machine of the film's premise could have run out of steam and made the third act stale. At this point, we’ll never know. Although, does it detract you from the overall enjoyment? Definitely not. Despite going to what almost feels like a generic horror trope (not totally, but almost), you’re not derailed from the intense thrill journey of Don’t Breathe.

Verdict

Being an example of how production scale doesn’t make the experience, Don’t Breathe is a memorable and captivating journey of both thrill and terror. Through the efforts of great directing, a brilliant performance by Stephen Lang and praise-worthy camera work, you’ll be thrown into a heart-racing journey that will go by quickly but will stick with you for a long time after. It feels like a suspense thriller within the horror genre. Controversial twists and nitpicks aside, Don’t Breathe stands out among the generic jump-scare bundles you’ve been subjected to this year with the strength of a simple premise and eventful pacing that will make you unable to take your eyes off the screen until the credits roll. When you need a nail biting reminder as to why breaking and entering’s a questionable choice, Don’t Breathe is a mesmerising reason that will make your hairs stand on end.


Rating: 9/10

 
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