After a summer of indifferent remakes, afterthoughts and comic-book movies, the release of Don’t Breathe – currently the #1 film in the U.S. – has been greeted with understandable relief by critics and audiences alike. Countering all evidence that the major studios have simply run out of worthwhile ideas, here is an at least semi-original property – it has antecedents, but is based on nothing more than a script – sent forth without deafening advance fanfare: it’s been allowed to sneak up on us, in other words, and its movements have been engineered with twisted skill.
The stakes are established with admirable economy. Three punk kids in the impoverished suburbs of Detroit decide to forsake low-level breaking-and-entering for a major payday: swiping a rumoured six-or-seven figure sum from a safe inside the heavily fortified bolthole of a reclusive blind guy (Stephen Lang) who lost his sight in Iraq. You or I might start to hear alarm bells at this point, and they ring only louder when the kids encounter him out walking a vicious-looking guide dog; that’s even before we factor in that old legend about blind people and heightened senses.
Co-writer/director Fede Alvarez’s Evil Dead remake of 2013 was another of those projects you perhaps wouldn’t have expected too much from – but even there he was careful about establishing the perimeters of his world (working out why his idiot teens were in the woods) before throwing open the portals to hell. He does something similar here, offering deft thumbnail sketches of his key players: unrepentant hothead Money (Daniel Zovatto), the damaged Rocky (Jane Levy), and the more level-headed Alex (Dylan Minette), who’s only tagging along in the hope of getting himself out of Rocky’s friendzone and into her pants.
What follows, as the crooks obtain access to the property and disastrously fail to subdue the homeowner, is in essence a nimble-toed game of Grandmother’s Footsteps, a very buff Blind Man’s Buff: a lean exercise in suspense choreography in which our antiheroes take two steps forwards, then find themselves having to stand stock still in unshod feet – or otherwise take evasive steps back – as their enraged target lurches murderously around them. (I suspect the footage would look perilously silly without the soundtrack; having it there conceals the gripped silence playing out in the auditorium.)
Cue fun variations on this theme: one moment, we’re sneaking around a bathroom, the next a basement, sometimes with the lights on, occasionally with the lights off. (The dog’s outside, then all-in.) You might say the whole thing is itself a variant on 1967’s Wait Until Dark, although Alvarez shuffles our points of identification by casting the hulking Lang (Avatar’s hawk-in-chief) in the Audrey Hepburn role, and bringing us on side with his misguided, increasingly petrified invaders. (Another way of approaching Don’t Breathe: as a far better Jack the Giant Slayer movie than 2013’s Jack the Giant Slayer.)
Although Alvarez again commits to his splashes of gore, this is a more reined-in experience than Evil Dead, confined to the movements of anywhere between two and five players around the one set: it takes a wicked glee in overturning our expectations as to how many bodies are left around to hit the floor, even while Naaman Marshall’s very sturdy production design provides new nooks and crannies for camera and characters alike to retreat inside.
Such tight focus inevitably puts the emphasis back on performances, and after their blood-soaked collaboration on Evil Dead, Alvarez elicits another tenacious showing from Levy; he also coaxes a towering display of physicality from Lang, who’s basically acting inside his own movie, unable to see his co-stars while striving to feel (and take) them out.
If it’s a little nuts-and-boltsy – and, if you believe in the concept of the friendzone, has some funny-skewed ideas on how to get yourself out of it – everything lines up into the kind of ruthlessly efficient B-picture that’ll make for electric Friday or Saturday night viewing with the right jumpy crowd. Just try not to rattle or grind your popcorn too loudly. Or, indeed, choke on it.
(MovieMail, August 2016)
Don't Breathe screens on Film4 this Thursday at 11.40pm, and is currently available to rent via Prime Video; a sequel, Don't Breathe 2, opens in cinemas nationwide this Friday.