Going into a film blind is something that I try to do as often as possible, especially when it comes to horror movies. Those movies more than any others are the ones that I look forward to unraveling, I love the mystique of it all. It’s just another reason that I find horror films to be a special treat, it’s almost always something of mystery to me. For the last six months, I’ve been excited to see Don’t Breathe solely on the poster, title, and the fact that it was co-written/directed by Fede Alvarez (Writer/director of 2013’s Evil Dead). I didn’t think that his Evil Dead was fantastic or anything (although I did enjoy it), but I thought that it proved him to be a more than capable horror director. It showed that he was someone with a vision, who really puts their stylistic stamp on a property. So, did he live up to his potential? Let’s take a look at this week’s new horror release Don’t Breathe.
Three young burglars (Jane Levy, Dylan Minnette and Daniel Zovatto) decide to leave their shitty lives behind in hopes of a new start in California. The money they need to escape lies in one final job, a seemingly simple one. They must break into the house of an old, blind war veteran (Stephen Lang) who has hundreds of thousands of dollars stored away. The burglars soon discover that they are in for a much more demented night than what they had planned.
As I said before, I didn’t think that Evil Dead was anything spectacular–but Alvarez still impressed me as a director. After watching Don’t Breathe, my suspicions were true. This guy not only knows what he’s doing, he knows how to do it 10 times better than any of the films released this summer. Fede Alvarez and his co-writer Rodo Sayagues have crafted a twisty thriller that unravels like a great book. Much like when I read a great thriller, I found myself hanging onto every single word, every single frame of this film. It’s truly the most original horror film that I’ve seen in years, filled with smart twists and true terror.
This movie is very much carried by the actors, which isn’t to say that it’s solely carried by them, but for these particular characters and story to work you need someone who can be an actor, not just another Scream Queen or Slasher. Jane Levy and Dylan Minnette are two young actors that I like quite a bit and with this film, I’ve seen only improvement from them. Sure it helps that they are given great dialogue and interesting characters in the script, but they have a lot of charisma and most important of all: range. Points where they are terrified seem genuine, relationships seem genuine, and even when we have to slow down for a moment of exposition they make it feel very natural. This film also manages the feat of making these characters not exactly good guys, but you understand their motivations. Even when they make seemingly stupid decisions, I understood why they were doing so given their situations. It’s a seemingly-minor aspect to the script that actually goes a long way when it comes to defining characters.
The young actors are great, but the film’s best performance goes to Stephen Lang as the crazed, blind war vet. He’s a character with actual layers to him, which Lang acts out incredibly. Much like the kids, he’s able to show a range of emotions and make it feel natural at every turn. He’s not only a dimensional character, but he does an incredible job at being intimidating. He’s a scary, muscular mother fucker who is only made scarier by his motivations. It’s easily Lang’s best performance yet.
One of the worries I had walking into this film was that it would be too reliant on jump scares. That’s always my worry when I watch horror movies nowadays, but with this film being very “sound focused” I thought it would just rely on cheap jump scares. This film is much more about tension and terror than it is about simply making you jump. From beginning to end, the film never slows down. It’s constantly playing with the sound and framing to keep you on your toes, as well as constantly introducing creative set piece after creative set piece. It’s a film that constantly provides you with something to get invested in and even when it does do a jump scare (which is not frequently at all), it’s something that feels a bit more earned than it does in many other films.
It’s hard to truly say what this film’s greatest asset is, but if I had to choose one I’d say that it would be the pacing. As I said, the movie is pumped full of interesting characters and smart dialogue that gets you invested into constant set pieces weaving around a compelling narrative. It does all of this within an 85-minute running time and never takes its time for granted. Every frame is focused on doing something interesting technically or creatively in order to further the story. Plus, our characters are in CONSTANT danger so when the second act kicks off, there’s really no slowing down. That’s why I view the film as such a crowdpleaser for your typical matinee audience, because despite whatever the subject material is, it delivers it to the audience through constant thrills and excitement.
I adore this film to death, but it’s not perfect. It’s almost perfect, but not quite. The biggest reason for this is that it’s a film that–for absolutely no reason–opens with a scene from the third act. It’s one of those scenes that shows us a main character in a seemingly inescapable situation and then rewinds back to “the day before” or whatever, something we’ve seen a thousand times before. It’s a very cheap gimmick to get your attention and since this film is all about constant twists and turns, a lot of it was ruined by showing me that first scene. I basically put together the whole third act of the film before the 5-minute mark, which is a major fuck up for a movie like this. Thankfully, the film is written so well and doesn’t rely on a single twist so it really didn’t matter, but it bothered me throughout. Not only is the first scene an issue, but so is the final scene. The film ends fine, but then it has this epilogue that feels very tacked on. I obviously won’t spoil what it is, but it’s something that feels like it was added on because test audiences wanted a tighter bow wrapped around the conclusion. Aside from these two problems, the film is filled with various issues that you can see if you wanted to really analyze it, but this is such a good movie that those minor issues were just that: minor. They are nitpicks in a film that is otherwise fantastic, so it really wasn’t too bothersome. Yeah, giving away the ending was a major problem for me, but even that wasn’t enough to ruin it. I think that alone shows the strength of this film and its crew.
Rating: 9 out of 10
This film reminds me very much of 10 Cloverfield Lane because it’s a perfect storm of everything that I want, and audiences want, in a major release. It moves fast, it’s smart, original, well-written, incredibly well acted, scary, tense, and most of all: fun. I have problems with this film, but they barely take anything away from what an achievement this is. This is the type of entertainment that audiences deserve, something that’s tight and moves fast, but doesn’t sacrifice it’s story in exchange for better pacing. It’s a pace that moves with the story, not faster than it. This is one of those few films that’s so entertaining, it transcends the genre that it’s in. Much like you shouldn’t shy away from The Dark Knight simply because it’s a superhero movie, you shouldn’t shy away from Don’t Breathe simply because it’s a horror film. There truly is enough here to satisfy even the most demanding filmgoer. I was a little bit worried walking into this and hearing about how good it was, but for once I got exactly what I wanted from this movie. For once, believe the hype. See this movie.