Director: Fede Alvarez
Screenplay: Fede Alvarez and Rodo Sayagues
Cast: Jane Levy (as Rocky); Stephen Lang (as Norman Nordstrom); Dylan Minnette (as Alex); Daniel Zovatto (as Money)
A Night of a Thousand Horror (Movies) #79
[MAJOR SPOILERS THROUGHOUT]
Don't Breathe being placed within the "Horror" category is, barring one subplot, somewhat debatable. The grey area with this subject is that, whilst Don't Breathe is a Thriller, that genre itself has always been misused as a genre description and has so many sub-genres within it that bleed into the same areas of Horror does as there are many that don't. For those films in the Thriller genre that are about crime, conspiracies etc. this is not applicable, the sort of films the older term Suspense was appropriate for, but those smaller scale, slow burn films usually set at night or with fear and tension involved start to slide into the same territory as Horror, only that the fear is found in ordinary reality and other people. In Don't Breathe, this sense of terror is found within context which is not usually horror based as three robbers (Jane Levy, Dylan Minnette and Daniel Zovatto) attempt to steal from the home of a blind war veteran Norman Nordstrom (Stephen Lang) only for it to backfire, horror to be found in how, even if his blindness, Nordstrom is still dangerous and has an advantage in his own home of his sense of hearing being heightened and how having no eyes is far more an advantage for him than for the three robbers to have sight, especially female lead Rocky (Levy), when there is no light in the dark house.
After the frankly overrated, terrible Evil Dead remake from 2013, this is a significant step-up in quality for director/co-writer Fede Alvarez. A lot of this is because the premise, where characters have to move quietly around a hostile environment against a resourceful and strong individual, forces the film to slow down, even at eight five minutes or so, taking its time to a virtue to let tension build up. If Don't Breathe was just a Thriller which followed the initial premise it would've been great, of three people being trapped in a person's house unprepared, and his pet Rottweiler another obstacle, can bring out a great deal of tension. This is particularly the case as Alvarez can still be as flashy as he was as a director in the Evil Dead remake but with the right material for it to not be obnoxious but add to the mood greatly. One main location in the house is turned into a claustrophobic labyrinth of basement and between wall routes for characters to try to escape through, and when there are key set pieces this style adds to their significance, the biggest and best when Nordstrom takes advantage of his blindness, a scene in the total dark shot with a special camera depicting the sequence in stark white light with the actor's eyes like giant, swollen pupils without irises.
The film fails for me however with its plot twist where, when it's built up how the blind vet lost his daughter in a hit-and-run accident, he kidnapped the female driver responsible and artificially impregnated her, keeping her in the basement until she could sire a new daughter before he'd release her. It's a plot twist which inherently places him as the villain, as disturbing in implication and trigger warnings as you can get, but it's also so completely out of place within this particularly film and the rest of the content. Also, while this loaded twist immediately places Rocky as the sympathetic lead, especially as she is about to fall foul of the same horrible event by way of what appears to be a turkey baser to add to its grisliness, it's a bizarre paradox of a tasteless and transgressive plot twist that however neuters the film's central moral conflict by making Stephen Lang an obvious villain.
If it wasn't for this twist, Don't Breathe would've had a far more complex, and more rewarding, issue in its tale of three morally duplicitous individuals, who are attempting to commit crime so Rocky can escape with her young daughter from a terrible home life, but still do so by robbing an innocent and blind war veteran. By placing the gruesome plot twist in it both negates the potential for more complexity to this stylist thriller and actually reveals a lack of character dimension to Jane Levy's Rocky, both in a merely adequate performance from the actor and the issue in terms of the character as a fully formed or at least interest figure the film mostly hangs on emotionally. Were it not for two things bookmarking the events that happen to Rocky, one brief sole sequence of her terrible home life with an alcoholic mother and aggressive step father that's never mentioned again, and the plot twist and how she's in the same terrible position as the last women in Nordstrom's basement, the character is not actually likable, only sympathetic due to script additions that 1) give her a daughter that brings inherent sympathy and 2) write in the implications of sexual violence that would immediately place a female character as a sympathetic victim whether or not the screenplay could actually justify the later in good taste or whether either addition is actually done well or not. Hence, Don't Breathe is certainly a step up in quality, but Fede Alvarez really doesn't deserve the praise he's had until he stops letting these crass broad strokes effect his films like the first two.