Overview: Three teenagers break into a blind man’s house for the score of a lifetime, but they see more than they bargained for. Screen Gems/Stage 6 Films; 2016; Rated R; 88 minutes.
Well, That is Detroit: Upon leaving the theater after watching Don’t Breathe, I witnessed a bit of Midwestern hilarity as an elderly woman turned to her husband and said, “Terrible situation those kids found themselves in, but well, that is Detroit, y’know.” Of course the specific kind of horror the teenagers of the Detroit-set Don’t Breathe encounter is far from the city’s reality. Shot on location in Hungary, Don’t Breathe only constructs a fictional look at American decay with its abandoned neighborhoods and deep pockets of shadow separated only by the darker lines of tar that fill in the gaps in cracked streets. These streets populated with whites on the verge of financial collapse and Latinos looking to scrape together the dream they were promised highlight a kind of social despair that horror films rarely touch. Even as a representation of Detroit’s reality, Fede Alvarez taps into our unique modern fears of a collapsed American dream. A neighborhood of urban decline becomes just as terrifying a glimpse into Hell as the lone cabin in the woods that made for the primary set-piece in Alvarez’s previous film. But unlike Evil Dead, Don’t Breathe is concerned with the stifling closeness that comes from neighbors you can’t trust, and the societal constraints that allow them to take until there’s nothing left. No, it’s not Detroit, but it comes close enough to the fears of suburban senior citizens and optimistic immigrants to make America strange again.
Three Blind Mice: The three young protagonists of Don’t Breathe, Rocky (Jane Levy), Alex (Dylan Minnette), and Money (Daniel Zovatto), are smartly naïve. This may seem like an oxymoron, but the careful construction of these characters is what allows the horror to take effect once they enter the house of “The Blind Man” (Stephen Lang). They’re capable thieves, fitted with individual motivations for their robberies: Rocky does it to secure enough money for she and her sister to escape their abusive household and go to California. Alex does it for his love of Rocky, and perhaps because he thinks he’s smart enough to keep getting away with it. Money does it, well, for the money, but as the only one of the three with no familial ties, it’s a safe assumption that this is all he has. But neither skill nor incentive matter once these American dreamers enter the home of “The Blind Man,” a faithless Iraqi war vet whose daughter was rundown by a careless teenager. Once inside the house, the trio make a series of stupid decisions, stupid not in the traditional slasher-movie sense, but stupid because we’ve been made aware that blindness doesn’t equal helplessness. Alvarez gleefully taunts the audience with scenes of imminent danger for our protagonists as “The Blind Man” quietly creeps through the shadows. None of these tension-filled scenes are achieved in exactly the same way as Alvarez experiments with light, sound, shocking acts of violence, and levity that consistently keep us unprepared from one scene to the next. Don’t Breathe plays up the fact that the teenagers are really the ones who can’t see, and as reveal leads to reveal, it becomes increasingly apparent that no previous robbery could have prepared them for the sheer insanity of what they encounter.
The Survivor and the Marksman: The emotional effect of Jane Levy’s eyes is not to be underestimated. Her wide-eyed terror and bone-crunching physicality is the kind performance that horror directors dream of. Every moment of shock and pain is ten times more effective under Levy’s commitment to the role. Her horror becomes our horror, and in a film with a lack of jump scares or familiar horror tropes, that horror is one fist-clenching experience. The same commitment can be found in Lang’s “Blind Man” who sniffs the air for his prey like some vicious canine. In fact, “The Blind Man’s” dog in the film can be seen as an extension of himself, just as capable and bloodthirsty. What’s most interesting about Lang and Alvarez’s construction of this character is that “The Blind Man” remains a solider through and through, which means he uses a gun as his weapon of choice. There’s a reason why most horror movies opt for bladed weapons; there’s a certain slow inevitability to a knife, machete, or even a chainsaw. A gun comes across as too easy a cause of death for a group of teenagers forced to survive on nothing but their wits. The cutting of flesh has become such a horror movie staple, that the idea that new horror icon could tap into fear with a firearm would have seemed like a stretch. But Lang’s blind sniffing in search of a target and Levy’s panicked ducking in the dark is more than enough to make haphazard shooting just as terrifying as a blade, perhaps moreso given our current climate. Don’t Breathe may offer a nightmare refraction of our reality, but it’s close enough to make us question what our own neighbors would do for their chance at the American Dream.
Overall: Don’t Breathe is wonderfully exhausting, crowd-pleasing horror. While the film sometimes makes allowances in logic for what the characters can and can’t hear or see, it works in the service of getting some of the best emotional reactions we’ll get out of large audiences this year. Alvarez may struggle with awkward bits of dialogue near the beginning, but when it comes to story beats and directorial vision, he remains an unmatched force in modern horror. Even without considering the subtextual social implications of the film, Don’t Breathe’s perverse, smirking wickedness is enough to make even the most desensitized of modern audiences say, “Damn! That was crazy!”
Featured Image: Screen Gems/Stage 6 Films