Don’t Breathe is a wonderfully accurate title. The latest film from Sam Raimi‘s Ghosthouse Productions and Fede Alveraz, the director of the 2013 film Evil Dead that served as a remake of Raimi’s calling card. Here, Alvarez is not adapting a beloved cult film, but going with his own original story to scare us. Of course, there’s a Raimi influence on this. Mainly, the sillier moments and the Detroit setting is close to Raimi’s childhood home. It’s an interesting note that this is the first of Raimi’s extensive filmography to reference the modern economic state of Detroit. It’s a setting that Don’t Breathe uses to quickly tell us the economic state of our characters. Their desperation that’s sort of doomed to destroy what they have, much like the city itself.
Despite the reasonable motivations of our trio of robbers, sympathy is murky in a tale that also involves them robbing a blind Gulf War vet. Don’t Breathe plays with sides multiple times during its limited run time in a sort of “cat and mouse game” of who to trust. Those shifts are drastic and add to Alvarez’s ability to build tension as he explores the environment with his camera. He often uses one-takes early on to fully establish the lay of the land, whether it be in the initial robbery that shows how sleuth (or in the case of Daniel Zovatto‘s Money, non-sleuthy) this trio is or the literal lay of the environment we’re going to be spending time in. They – meaning both our trio of thieves and Alvarez himself on a filmmaking level – cut corners to allow for certain moments of tension. It’s the sacrifice of making a smaller film by making a few lesser concessions to get to the major moments of horror. We know most of the nooks and crannies of this blind man’s house as things are perfectly set up visually.
Then again, Alvarez also knows what not to reveal until the appropriate time. Withholding information keeps us guessing as each set pieces of tension comes up. While we’re wondering “how does that work” or “why did they react this wa-” WHAM! Something brutal happens. Maybe it’s a fall. Maybe it’s a gunshot. Hell, maybe a character dies horribly. Don’t Breathe also don’t play games. The world of Don’t Breathe is one where intelligence can win, but it’s no guarantee. Jane Levy, Dylan Minnette and even Stephen Lang each have a certain amount of grounded intelligence to them, given their backgrounds that are fleshed out to varying degrees. Minnette suffers most from this due to a lack of insight into his relationship with his father, giving him less intriguing agency like Levy or Lang.
Levy once again shows off her abilities as a more competent modern scream queen, but with a slyer edge in terms of her own greed. Her backstory isn’t very creative, but it’s quick and to the point. One of many examples where Don’t Breathe takes advantage of economic storytelling, not wasting our time as it gets enough broad strokes to keep us invested without prattling on and on with a story that becomes unwielding and stupid like other horror films of recent *cough*LightsOut*cough*. Lang’s character is probably the most intriguing element, given he’s a blind Gulf War vet with a tragic past yet also our antagonist. As more is revealed, Lang keeps the craziness contained with one of his best performances, showing the contemplative anger that keeps him on top of most of these situations while laying out some pain. It’s a complex performance that remind us why he’s such an underrated character actor.
By the time one is able to exhale at any point during Don’t Breathe, it’s a temporary moment of relief. Just a moment of brief calm before the true storm punches us with a Lang sized blind fist to the face. The bold faced determination to throw a knife directly at the audience and slowly turn it without much consideration for traditional rules beyond the basic concept is a joy to watch. In a summer full of cut and dry characters within a cookie cutter plot, it’s nice to see complex motivations and characters, even for a small thriller like this. I know I’ve said that a lot for the few films that have stood out this summer, but it bares repeating as much as possible. Don’t Breathe is the type of quick summer fun that one has likely been starving for all season and it’s totally worth the investment even with its foibles that keep it from achieving huge potential. There’s just the right amount of cynical edge to keep things unpredictable, but not enough to keep things down for too long. Don’t Breathe is as exhilarating and asphyxiating as one would predict from the title and it’s all the better for it.
Rating: 4 out of 5 Turkey Basters