Don’t Breathe (2016), a Review

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Director – Fede Alvarez

Writer – Fede Alvarez

Starring – Jane Levy, Dylan Minnette, Daniel Zovatto, Stephen Lang

After being the man hand-picked to direct the remake/sequel to the iconic Evil Dead franchise, the originally named Evil Dead, in 2013, Fede Alvarez had an opportunity to go down in folklore from the out. To a large extent, he succeeded. While some of the more die-hard Evil Dead fans cried foul, most rational horror fans agreed it was an incredibly intense and visceral experience that pushed the boundaries of what mainstream horror can get away with. With a lot of critical praise, expectations were high for his first original horror effort. With an intriguing premise and the star of the Evil Dead remake (Jane Levy), Don’t Breathe looked like what being one of the best horror films of the year. Unfortunately, things didn’t quite pan out this way, and it sadly reeks of a missed opportunity.

Rocky, Alex, and Money are three Detroit delinquents who make a living by breaking into homes secured by Alex’s father’s security company and selling the items they take. However, the person buying the stolen goods from Money doesn’t give them a fair price, and not nearly enough to fund Rocky’s dream of moving to California with her little sister Diddy to escape their neglectful mother and her alcoholic boyfriend. Money receives a tip that an Army veteran living in an abandoned Detroit neighborhood has $300,000 in cash in his house, given as a settlement after a wealthy young woman, Cindy Roberts, killed his daughter in a car accident. The three stake out the house and discover that the man is in fact blind. After some deliberation, they decide to break into the house at night. Predictably, the trained marine ain’t down with this, and things quickly go wrong.

My biggest problem with Don’t Breathe is twofold. Firstly, it makes the same mistakes as Evil Dead did, in falling into the classic trap of having archetypal characters that are stereotypes as opposed to people. We get the reluctant criminal with a moral core, the rebellious girl who revels in the chaos, and the straight up gangsta, who bloody loves it. They’re played decently, and Levy in particular shines, but it’s all very archaic, meaning the first half hour of the film is decidedly dull. By the time anything interesting happens, you may well have turned it off.

Whilst some praise is deserved for taking a slow burning build up, it’s not exactly enthralling, meaning on this occasion, it may have been better to just jump straight in. Unfortunately, when we do get to the ‘horror’, nothing really improves, save for one or two great scenes.

A big issue is the inconsistent characterisation of the central antagonist, the marine vet they are attempting to rob. The first mistake is blurring the lines too much in terms of who is the good and bad guy here. While it’s admirable to have more morally ambiguous characters in your film, it doesn’t tend to work in a horror flick. Whilst Friday The 13th proved there is a certain level of depraved entertainment to be had from watching ethically questionable teenagers being murdered, it’s hard to argue there was any real horror involved at all. For me, personally, true horror can only be achieved if you care about the central protagonists and consequently do not want to see harm befall them.

Here, for the most part anyway, the characters being stalked and hunted are arguably the villains of the piece, considering they’re attempting to rob a blind man, whereas the stalker, said blind man, comes off as a valiant hero defending himself and his property. Now, had Alvarez run the whole way with this, it could be a nifty subversion of the norm, sadly – SPOILER – he ruins it halfway through by revealing the blind vet is a sadistic maniac, ergo flipping the narrative on its head..meaning the thieves are now the good guys,and we support their robbery, I guess.

In any other genre this blurring of lines would be welcome and a refreshing change of formula, ergo I can’t come down too hard on Avarez. However, in the horror scene, you need Good Vs Evil, as it’s a classic driving force of the genre since the early days of its inception.

Another blaring issue is the inconsistent Veteran. There’s a permeating idea in Hollywood that blind people become somewhat superhuman in terms of their other senses, as they desperately compensate for what is lost. That one develops incredible hearing, smell and touch, and become almost more aware than those with sight. Regardless of how accurate a depiction that actually is, here, it’s used very inconsistently. One minute he’s a preternatural being, smelling shoes from across the room and identifying they aren’t his, and hearing tiny sounds magnified. Next minute, somebody’s stood in front of him, he can’t smell them at all, and he’s flailing his arms around like he’s lost. While this may be a more realistic depiction of the blind, it’s not exactly terrifying, often being more humorous than anything else. This means the horror element is nullified from the start.

Now, there are great moments hidden in this sea of missed chances, including one nail-biting sequence when the veteran cuts the lights to turn the tables and create an even playing field. This works, yet, the script has too many issues, and too many occurrences when people could easily escape yet somehow manage to end up back in his clutches.

The acting performances are, in general, really solid. Levy in particular shines, carrying on from being the best thing about Evil Dead. She’s believable, and charismatic enough to shoulder the burden of being the centerfold. If she steers away from efforts like this and parlays into more serious endeavours, she could be a real talent for the future. Lang is also very good as the Veteran, turning in a tragic yet scary performance, that keeps the audience on edge.

Alavarez’s scipt and narrative may be lacking and rife with issues and inconsistencies, but it can’t be claimed that his visual directing isn’t very good. The man knows cinematography, and bring a great visual flair to proceedings. Evil Dead worked largely because it was a visually arresting and visceral experience. Here, not so much. Here, it’s more the polish on the proverbial turd.

Don’t Breathe is, sadly, a missed chance that falls flat. A textbook example of a fantastic premise squandered with iffy execution, a visually magnificent film is held back by erratic writing and characterisation, never allowing us, the viewing audience, to engage enough to truly care. Not a bad film, by any stretch, and there are certainly worse ways to spend ninety minutes, but it isn’t a particular good one either.

 

Final Rating – 3

 

Joshua Moulinie