There’s not a huge amount about the trailers or premise of Don’t Breathe that really drew me in, if we’re being honest. The idea sounded fine – a trio of young thieves break into the house of a blind man, only to find themselves the prey instead of the predators – but one that I’ve seen variations on before, and plenty of times. And the trailers looked okay, sure, but again, it felt like scenes from a film that I’d seen before.
But there were two big factors that drove me out to the movie theater. The first was realizing that Don’t Breathe was helmed by Fede Alvarez, the director of the Evil Dead remake (which I ended up really, really loving). And the second was the surprising praise that the film received upon release, including a rave by former Dissolve critic Scott Tobias, whose taste in horror I tend to trust pretty unreservedly. And so, on a day where I finished work early, I made my way out to a theater, hoping for a good crowd, but ending up in a theater by myself.
But, man, am I glad I went, because what I got was an incredibly intense experience – a film that uses its single environment magnificently, cranked up the tension, and just never let go.
Mind you, I also learned why it’s hard to make previews for Don’t Breathe, because the film is hiding some of its cards from the audience. Which makes sense – for a film like this to work, you need more to hang your plot on than “thieves evade a blind man,” especially when you’re working as bloody and intense as Alvarez likes to work. And so, the film keeps changing into something new as it unfolds, and keeps the audience uncomfortably askew at all times. But really, the plot is almost besides the point here; it’s perfectly fine, and more than a bit surprising, but it’s really not what makes the film work.
No, as Tobias points out in his review, Don’t Breathe works thanks in no small part to its incredible craft. Alvarez hits the ground running (you’re into the house within ten minutes of the movie starting, tops, and never leave until the end), but takes enough time to make sure we have our bearings in this place. We know how the rooms connect; we know where there are gaps; we know our blind spots (so to speak); and more than any of that, we almost always know where everyone is in the house – and when we don’t, the film uses our lack of knowledge as a way to increase the tension. None of that seems like it should be important, but it is; any film fan knows the difference between a rushed setup and one that really takes its time, and the payoff is more than worth the time, as Alvarez uses our knowledge to turn the film into an intricate chess match (one that has to owe a debt to David Fincher’s underrated Panic Room, which I feel like the final credits nod to subtly).
He’s matched, though, by some great performances, but Stephen Lang is the knockout here. Bringing a fierce physicality to the role, Lang is unnerving and unsettling – a vicious, primal presence that stalks the house, constantly keeps his face unreadable, and brings out a depth when you least expect it. Without him, the film wouldn’t be half as good as it is; with him, Alvarez has a perfect antagonist, one that becomes a very real and very serious threat, blind or not.
It’s been a good year for this kind of horror; between this and Green Room, we’ve had a double whammy of claustrophobic, intense thrillers that push into horror territory, taking a simple premise and ratcheting up the tension and unease through superb craft and great performances. Don’t Breathe doesn’t quite hold up to Green Room – the plot is more convoluted, and its epilogue can’t hold a candle to Green Room‘s perfect final line – but it’s still an intense, pulse-pounding thriller, and a reminder of the importance in craft in thrillers and horror.