Don’t Breathe (2016) dir. Fede Alvarez.
Written: Fede Alvarez and Royo Sayaguez.
Starring: Jane Levy, Dylan Minnette, Daniel Zovatto, and Stephen Lang.
CWs: Ableism, racism, abuse, rape, misogyny, dog attack.
Maybe it’s my own fault: ever since Don’t Breathe was announced many moons ago, I’ve been extremely excited for this film. The premise – three burglars evade a dangerously capable blind man after a robbery gone wrong – reeked of spectacular potential. The trailer alone got my heart racing better than some whole movies I’ve seen (but it also spoiled far more than it should’ve). So when my local theater partnered with Bloody Disgusting to offer lucky theatergoers a free showing two whole days before it came out, I jumped at the chance. I showed up an hour early, gave my phone to the officials outside the theater (a bootleg-busting precaution), and took my seat.
Eighty-eight minutes later, the credits rolled. And as I sat in that dim theater, surrounded by the applauding audience, I thought just one thing: thank God this showing was free, because otherwise I would’ve paid full ticket price to be entirely disappointed.
The plucky protagonists of the film are introduced in the middle of a burglary; opportunities evidently run thin in Detroit so they’ve taken to breaking, entering, and plundering the city’s wealthiest households. Rocky (Jane Levy) comes from a broken home and is desperate for the one big score that’ll spring her and her younger sister to freedom in California. Alex’s (Dylan Minnette) dad works for a security company, giving him and his friends all the tools and keys needed to pick out and penetrate the best spots. Their leader, more-or-less, is the aptly nicknamed Money (Daniel Zovatto), who does all the dirty work and takes a bit too much pleasure in thievery.
Those first ten minutes immerse you in the film with some relatively well-done exposition. The characters’ personalities and chemistry with each other is established immediately, and it actually feels natural. This is a deceitful trap. Immediately after the burglars’ first scene, any semblance of “subtlety” or “show, don’t tell” is ditched in favor of force-fed exposition. There is zero reason for these characters to talk to each other the way that they do in the contexts they’re in. Characters spilling their life story on a whim is the absolute bottom-of-the-barrel laziest way to provide exposition, but it happens multiple times from multiple characters and it always gets worse. The most egregious part is that the thread with Alex and his dad – who is apparently keeping him from running off to California with Rocky and Money – is infuriatingly underdeveloped. Why does he have to stay with his dad? Who knows? Not anyone who sees this movie! One of its numerous, spoiler-heavy trailers features (apparently) cut footage that offers more, but for whatever reason they thought it best to keep Alex’s potentially complex backstory as vague and undeveloped as possible. (AMENDMENT Jan. 21, 2017: Oh, they did have it in the movie, but they deleted it, because…because…?)
So after a stress test of how much contrived backstory the average audience member can take, the burglars finally plan out their ultimate heist: a blind Gulf War veteran (Stephen Lang), living alone in an abandoned neighborhood, allegedly with a load of cash won in a tragic legal settlement. This is a good part of the movie: the burglars break into the house with a lot of tact, and the whole sequence is excellently atmospheric. It’s dark, it’s tense, it’s quiet, and the house itself (inside and out) is some superb set design. Everything in it is eerily untouched and musty, with yellowed walls, dim lights, and frayed rugs. It’s like the house that your grandfather would live in if your grandfather was a swarm of hornets in a skin suit. The burglars tiptoe into the house with agonizing trepidation, and as they search for where the money might be, we’re treated to a tracking shot that gets a little too overt with the “this is going to be important later!” object signaling. The blind man eventually realizes that someone’s rummaging through his house and that’s where the cat-and-mouse game between panicked burglars and a ruthless homeowner begins.
From this point on, dialogue gets deemphasized (as it should be when a sightless killer’s chasing you) and bodily performances from the burglars are limited to looking scared, cautious fumbling around, and sometimes doing both at once. For those reasons, it’s hard to critique the acting as a whole, but the performances are enough to keep the movie going without any stand-outs one way or the other. Stephen Lang effectively balances helplessness with capable, militant viciousness while stalking his three unwanted guests, but his performance felt too subdued – the blind man could have been much deeper, much more complex, and much more frightening of a character if they had let him get emotional. He has a few outbursts, but they’re very scant and he never really drops the stoic act while in hot pursuit. His emotional extremes – grief, panic, outrage – were all amazing, and letting him maintain that emotional intensity would have given the character so much more presence. He felt too robotic, but maybe that’s what they were going for. Unfortunately, that approach just further dehumanizes a character known only as “the blind man” in what’s already an inherently, gratuitously ableist film.
That flaw – the blind man’s lack of characterization – dovetails into what is arguably the biggest problem with Don’t Breathe: it is so rushed and in such a hurry to go from scene to scene that its premise gets exhausted prematurely. The film as a whole very noticeably runs out of steam halfway through. Home invasion films should be nail-biting, but Alvarez seems to have deliberately avoided any approaches that would create genuine suspense or spectacle. Instead, the movie just scratches the surface of its possibilities and draws from a very shallow bag of tricks. There was so much ground laid for a captivating, nerve-wracking cat-and-mouse game, but that whole concept is cut short way too early in the film as it shifts gears to one of the most abhorrent twists I’ve ever seen in a movie (more on that later). Then, to try and keep itself afloat, it repeats the same tricks it used earlier but they’re all so tired by that point that it just plain does not work. Instead of flash fires, there should have been slow burns, but in this film’s misguided rush to dump its plot, it ends up failing on every level to maintain tension and momentum like Green Room could earlier this year.
And really, that’s it. Don’t Breathe is lazy and uninspired. Instead of capitalizing on its concept, it coasts on clichés, stale moves, and action that’s been done a lot better elsewhere. Its insultingly bland score only hurts it where total silence could have been used to extremely powerful effect. Its insistence on spoonfeeding the audience gets aggravating when it desperately needs more subtlety. Its action sequences feel like they were filmed on a leash: they lack a necessary edge, being just too shy of something really gut-wrenching and gruesome. In every aspect, Don’t Breathe is too fast for the suburbs but too slow for the freeway, simultaneously not enough but too much for whatever it’s trying to be, and as a result, has zero sense of identity whatsoever. It’s a frustratingly inconsistent viewing experience that adamantly refuses to apply itself.
Now let’s talk about the twist. Well, I won’t really talk about it because my reviews shun spoilers, but if you’ve seen any of the trailers you’ve effectively seen the whole movie already and might have an idea of what I’m talking about. I’ll save the details for the stinger below my verdict, but I will say this: it’s so cartoonishly evil that it feels like a bad joke told by an edgy eighth-grader. It’s so flawed and poorly executed that it’s like anything else could have taken its place in the plot: script says “the blind man has a _______ in his basement.” Despite being so integral to the third act, the entire scenario felt expendable, and I couldn’t get invested at all due to how tacked on it felt from the get-go. And of course, if you’re at all triggered or deeply shaken by viciously graphic sexual assault, I strongly recommend that you cross this one off your “to-see” list. Fortunately, you won’t be missing much.
Speaking of the third act, there were about six different spots where this film could have ended, and maybe two where it should have ended, but it didn’t pick any of those points. It really, really took its time getting to the ending, which felt more frustrating than rewarding because that is not the time for suspense. You’ve read this far. You know I’ve spent ten paragraphs now eviscerating this film for how poorly handled its suspense was. They had an entire movie to let the tension simmer, but prolonging the same repetitive tricks for another half hour feels like blatant padding of the runtime. The stakes are high. The action’s brutal. But you know what? It’s boring. Spending sixty phoned-in minutes with bland characters won’t make me care about them for the last thirty.
Before I wrap this up, I should be fair: minus that terrible score, Don’t Breathe has great sound design, ramping up all the little incidental noises people constantly make. Breaths, footsteps, and general disturbances of the environment, no matter how small, are audible, which neatly puts us in the blind man’s acute auditory perspective. The camerawork has a lot of close-ups and everything feels cramped, but that’s great for such a claustrophobic film. And even then, there’s still some really cool shots that show Alvarez, a fledgling director, already crafting a signature style. So Don’t Breathe isn’t all bad – but that’s the kicker. It’s so close to being good, even great. Its bones are solid, but overall, it disappoints and disappoints and disappoints some more. There’s so many moments in Don’t Breathe that are bona fide genius, but those moments are unforgivably infrequent, diluted by unearned jump scares and repetitive camera tricks, weakened by narrative problems, and too burdened by a mountain of other flaws to save the film as a whole.
Don’t Breathe is the kind of movie that frustrates you with how bad it is because it could’ve, very easily, been so much better. Every single thing wrong with it is a simple fix. Get a real efficient editor to trim the plot and sift through the repetition to make a shorter, more laser-focused film that takes more creative advantage of its premise without ditching it for some deplorable twist halfway through. Flesh out the characters without sitting them down to just open-endedly talk about their life. Go ultra-violent if you want to get ultra-violent, but stop toeing lines and commit to a consistent tone of action. EMBRACE! SUSPENSE! Stop throwing out the tension! Do all of those things, and we’ve got a better movie, but the Don’t Breathe we did get disappoints, hard, so I just recommend Wait Until Dark instead. They did the whole thing better fifty years ago, and with Audrey Hepburn to boot. Two stars out of five.
When writing a review, I try not to describe the whole film scene by scene. To that end, that means that there are sometimes stray observations, specific reactions, and noted reflections that just can’t make it into the review proper, for the sake of either efficiency or avoiding spoilers. That said, a spoiler alert is in full effect for the various hot takes listed below.
- The best character in Don’t Breathe is the blind man’s dog. It gets all the best moments and is the most consistent threat through the whole movie. Even then, it still does the same exact jump scare, like, three times.
- The best shot in the film is after Rocky shoots the old man down the basement trapdoor and the camera lingers on his eyes. The trapdoor closes, and all you can see is a very faint light still gleaming in his pupils. That pierced me to the core, and I wholly expected it to fade to black and roll credits. Instead we end up in an airport because Alvarez would have literally exploded if he didn’t make sure, with as much grating explicitness as possible, that everyone knew Rocky made it to California.
- The blackout basement scene was good, really good. The moment where Rocky is fumbling, hand outstretched for Alex, and comes within inches of grabbing the blind man was the most suspenseful moment in the film. I loved it, but why couldn’t there have been more moments like that? Don’t Breathe loved to produce blind man out of nowhere, but more moments where he just appears (silently!) around the distracted burglars, more moments where we get a lingering threat instead of a sudden scare, could have salvaged so much of this film. Hitchcock has a famous quote about a bomb under a table: if it explodes without warning, it’s a surprise, but there’s no suspense. Let us see the bomb, and let us agonize over whether or not the characters will see it, too.
- Rocky’s monologue about her ladybug tattoo lands with all the grace of a skydiving semi-truck that forgot its parachute. It’s only purpose in the film is to foreshadow a forced, unsatisfying callback later. If you can watch this scene without rolling your eyes, you earn a free medium popcorn from cooperating theatres.
- One thing that I liked about this film’s writing (one of so few things) was the blind man’s capabilities. He wasn’t Daredevil, like I was afraid he would be. He just had a great sense of direction. Revolver in hand, he missed a lot more shots than he made but was still a damn good marksman all things considered. His blindness wasn’t a superpower, and watching the blind man carefully calculate where the burglars were was…satisfying? The film eventually has the burglars using cacophony, like sirens, to disorient him but like many things, it was a great idea that felt too underutilized.
- I think that the burglars finding the money so early into the movie was a big missed opportunity. Searching for the money would have given the burglars a reason to explore the whole house and keep moving, which would have kept them dodging the blind man all the while. This entire premise, honestly, could have been a pretty daring film, relying heavily on constantly active off-screen space to really give a sense of the house and the wanderings of those inside it. Instead, we got something generic that needs a garbage twist to finish the film for it.
- Alright, let’s talk about the twist: there’s a girl in the basement that’s been forcibly impregnated by the blind man because she killed his daughter a long time ago, and by the second half, Rocky is captured and is supposed to take her place. The entire idea feels tacked on as a way of adding arbitrary darkness to a premise that could fare better without it – don’t shove a different, bad plot onto a working plot and expect a consistently good movie. Everything about the basement scenario is horrifying, yeah, but it’s all so fleeting, because the whole set-up is just plain cheap. It’s gross, despicable and disgusting in ways that’ll make you shudder, but I don’t mean that as a compliment to the film’s ability to instill horror. It wasn’t just gratuitously misogynistic, but it was abjectly gross. It’s akin to if the film had cut at its climax to “Two Girls, One Cup,” in that it’s a very visceral, gut-wrenching nastiness, but it’s sure as hell not earned and it’s sure as hell not satisfying. If I wanted to be grossed out in a good way I’d watch Dead Alive or Black Sheep and if I wanted to see sexual violence (and I really don’t) I’d watch a rape-revenge film.
- And seriously: how did the blind man kidnap that first girl anyway? She killed the blind man’s daughter in a hit and run accident for which she was acquitted: how would he not be the prime suspect in her disappearance? I can’t imagine a single chain of events that would end with the police not searching his whole house. And how long has she been there for him to have such a stockpile of frozen sperm on hand? Can you really just thaw out basement-freezer-semen on a Bunsen burner and baste it in? Is that really how it works? How would he even know whether his victim is pregnant or not, or before that, ovulating or not? There is nothing about his plot that makes sense or seems plausible (and “he’s delusional!” is a terrible cop-out), and while I’m normally one to let logistics slide in horror movies, I can’t let this one go because all of its holes are emblematic of how shoe-horned and half-baked it all feels.
- The blind man wielding a turkey baster full of thawed semen with the same gravitas that Michael Myers wields his knife is darkly and disgustingly…effective. The way the camera lingers on it is nauseating. And in typical horror villain fashion, his “signature weapon” gets cathartically used against him in a way that’d make Carol J. Clover’s head spin.
- Another thing about this train wreck of a twist: the whole atheist rhetoric feels so hokey, like something straight out of some egotistical internet commentator. It comes out of absolutely nowhere, with no precedent. He just spits out, “hey, there’s no God, so that’s why I do bad things.” Maybe Alvarez used the same logic when he thought to make this movie.
- Why go through so much trouble and concoct such a convoluted, ugly plot twist just to make the blind man evil? I understand the motive: they wanted the burglars to be more heroic, so they made the poor, helpless blind man an absolute monster. But morally complex characters are okay! Rocky was already sympathetic, since she was depending on that money to escape her abusive family with her sister. I’d like to say Alex had a good reason, too, I’d really like to, but he didn’t have anything that could be called a backstory. So you’ve got the desperate burglar who’ll go through hell without success, versus an innocent but ruthless victim defending his home. That would give audiences reasons to root for both characters, and keep them in SUSPENSE about which one might win out in the end. Anything that could have been really interesting and deep about this movie got gutted in its efforts to make everything as clear-cut as possible.
- I don’t understand the point of the ending. Why let him live? What does it offer to the story? At best, it’s some kind of nod that he’s letting her escape, which I just don’t get the point of. At worst, it’s a “he’s still out there!” stinger that’s equal parts improbable, unsubstantial, and just plain ridiculous. Worse, one of the trailers contains even more cut footage featuring the blind man at the airport from the ending, implying that he trailed Rocky and her sister there. I’m glad they cut that because that would’ve been absurd. Also, in case I haven’t made it clear: Don’t Breathe had, objectively, one of the most bungled and awful marketing campaigns I’ve ever seen. Every single trailer spills the whole movie. Every scare, every twist, every…everything.