Written by: Adrienne Clark
Directed by: Fede Alvarez
Cast: Jane Levy, Stephen Lang, Dylan Minnette
The thing about successfully tense movies is that they only work if the audience doesn’t know what’s coming. No matter what the genre, a consistently unpredictable plot will keep people glued to their seats with hands over mouths.
Or, at least, that’s what I believed. Then I saw Fede Alvarez’s Don’t Breathe.
It’s going to be hard to talk about this movie without spoiling it. I’ll do my best not to reveal anything major but the story’s style is so economical that every detail has the ability to reveal information. So, just saying, you’ve been warned.
Don’t Breath centers on three young burglars in Detroit (everyone’s new favorite horror film city) and the attempted robbery of an Iraq vet. Although he seems like the perfect target, things go from bad to worse when the disabled vet (played by the near-mute Stephen Lang) turns out to be more than what he seems.
What worked so well in this film was the balance between predictability and spontaneity. Every plot device, every motivation, even every weapon were foreshadowed, which kept me believing the story even as things escalated. For example, the homeowner is revealed to be an Iraq vet well before the robbery, so I was prepared when he was more capable of defending his home than a regular Joe.
Simultaneously, all of this foreshadowing left me with a pretty clear understanding of what was going to happen (if the characters take time to take off their shoes in one scene, you can bet that it’s going to come back to bite them in the ass later). In a less skilled director’s hands, this would have turned into a formulaic snooze, but Alvarez uses this to his advantage. Once he has given you all of the pieces, he leaves you to sweat, wondering when and how it will all fit together.
Alvarez does this best near the end of the first act, as the burglars first enter the house. The camera leaves the characters behind and swoops in on specific objects, pausing for a moment before moving on. In this way, we’re alerted to information that the main characters don’t have and are left to worry until these objects are used. This device, famously used by Alfred Hitchcock, is an effective way to heighten the tension through engaging the audience.
Things get a little wonky when it comes to the characters and their motivations. Although the script does a good job of keeping every character from being innocent, it loses some of its effectiveness when it tries to infuse heart into the story. I didn’t feel much sympathy for the main characters, even though it was clear I was supposed to. The reason Rocky (the compelling Jane Levy) doesn’t leave the house when things get scary is at odds with her original motivation. How do you achieve a better life if you’re dead?
The acting was competent and subtle. In fact, I was so wrapped up in the suspense that I didn’t even notice. This is a compliment in my book. Sure, I love to stop and wonder at an incredible performance, but not in a film based on suspense. These actors let me focus on the plot while giving grounded, realistic performances.
There is one sequence in the film that doesn’t quite work. Remember when I said that everything was foreshadowed? Well, there’s a twist halfway through this film that isn’t. Or, at least, it’s only kind of foreshadowed. Either way, the film shifts in tone in a way that pulled me out to wonder if I bought it. You’ll have to judge for yourself if it works. I’m not going to say anything more.
There’s a pattern to the horror movies I’ve really liked in the recent past (Green Room and It Follows come to mind), and that’s the decision to not watch the trailer. These great films were heightened for me because I went in completely blind. I would suggest doing the same for this movie. I did and I had a great time.
Don’t Breathe is a fun, anxiety-filled movie with twists and turns that will keep you guessing. It’s a great way to end the summer.