Director Fede Alvarez’s previous film, the 2013 remake of “Evil Dead,” is considered the bloodiest movie of all time. (I prefer the word ‘sinewy,’ as it was needlessly, almost laughably gory, but oh well.) His latest film “Don’t Breathe” appears to be an attempt at karmic payback of sorts, because he’s downright stingy with the corn syrup this time around, and the film is better because of it. It’s a claustrophobic thriller; it doesn’t need to be bloody. Indeed, Alvarez has multiple opportunities to shed blood on screen (if Mel Gibson is directing, you’re seeing that blood), but resists. This is a good thing.
Alex (Dylan Minnette), Rocky (Jane Levy), and Rocky’s boyfriend Money (Daniel Zovatto) are low-rent Detroit kids who commit petty theft on the houses protected by the security company that employs Alex’s father, careful to avoid anything that would make them guilty of grand larceny. Money gets word of a potential robbery target, an older man (Stephen Lang) with no family, living on an abandoned block and sitting on $300,000. The man uses the same security company, so the three scout the house, and learn two valuable things: the man is blind, and he has a Rottweiler.
Alex wants no part of this job, but is guilted into taking part by Rocky, who wants to take the money and run, making a better life for her and her daughter. The house has more locks than they’re used to, making the job infinitely riskier, but they break in anyway. It is at this point that the three discover, once it’s much too late to back out, that the blind man is a war veteran. Needless to say, the job goes poorly.
Alvarez’s directorial sensibility is on much greater display here than it was in “Evil Dead,” executing a series of impressive shots starting with a Fincher-esque bit that goes places a cameraman cannot normally go (think “Panic Room”), and building up to a breathless sequence shot in near-total darkness that will recall a certain scene from “The Silence of the Lambs.” He even borrows the best scene from “The Lost World: Jurassic Park” (you’ll know it when you see it), and turns it on its head. He may have gotten away with more in “Evil Dead,” but Alvarez appears to be having more fun here, while paying tribute to some thrilling moments from cinema’s past at the same time.
The story structure is simple, though there is a second, more disturbing layer to the premise that raises the stakes in a manner that, as unpleasant as it is, has a warped logic to it. They were also very smart with regard to the shooting accuracy of The Blind Man (Lang’s character is never referred to by name). In most films, it is usually due to plot convenience when a shooter misses his target. Here, well, it’s sometimes plot convenience, but most of the time it’s because he’s a blind man.
The only character who’s afforded any depth, however, is Levy’s Rocky, stuck raising her young daughter in the same house as her loveless, deadbeat mother. (We don’t meet anyone related to Alex or Money.) There is also the matter of the film’s ending, which suggests that the Detroit Police Department are incompetent on a dangerous level. To say more, though, would be to say too much.
“Don’t Breathe” is being marketed like a horror film (look no further than the “Evil Dead” reference at the top of the poster, as well as the poster itself), but it’s not a horror film. It’s a very effective ‘90s throwback thriller, where a broken man is robbed by a group of morally bankrupt kids. Have fun deciding who the true heroes and villains are over drinks afterwards.(3.5 / 5)
This review originally ran August 25, 2016 on Bullz-Eye.com.