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Non-Review: Don’t Breathe

Don’t Breathe works reasonably well for about two thirds of its runtime.

The premise of Fede Alvarez’s Detroit-based horror is quite clever, a stew of familiar ideas thrown into a blender and delivered in a very stylish manner. Don’t Breathe is a film that begs to be summarised in pithy one-liners that bridge movie titles using the dreaded “… with …” In those terms, Don’t Breathe is Home Alone meets Halloween, Wait Until Dark meets The Bling Ring, Panic Room meets Saw. The combinations are infinite, as are the influences. And there is a charm to that.

Firing blind.

Firing blind.

Horror is a visceral genre; doing something new is great, but so is doing something familiar in a novel way. For its first two thirds, Don’t Breathe is an exciting and tense horror movie with an ingenious high concept and with a number of reliable jump scares. Fede Alvarez does not necessarily innovate, but he understands how to pace a sequence for maximum tension and he has a great eye for cinematic influences. Contemporary culture can often feel like “remix” culture, mashing old ideas together to create something interesting. Don’t Breathe fits with that.

The problem comes during the movie’s third act, when the thrills and horror slow down just long enough to flesh out the “monster” at the centre of the film. As it pushes into its climax, Don’t Breathe becomes a lot less intriguing and effective. In those final twenty minutes, Don’t Breathe indulges the baser impulses of the horror genre in a manner that is crass and cheap. Don’t Breathe begins as a series of inventive homages to the best that horror genre has to offer. Unfortunately, it ends as a demonstration of the genre’s worst attributes.

Setting his (gun) sight on them.

Setting his (gun) sight on them.

The plot of Don’t Breathe hinges on a group of highly organised teenage thieves operating in Detroit. The three young criminals have an effective gimmick; one of their number has a father who works for a security company, granting him access and information to various alarm systems within the city limits. More than that, there is a precision to the way that the team works. They are mindful of the barriers that exist between various classes of offence and operate with tactical efficiency in terms of timing.

There is a certain charm and efficiency to the way that Don’t Breathe uses its opening scenes to convey everything that the audience needs to know about the characters in question. Trashing these fine homes, ringleader Money is reckless and irresponsible. Instructing his team members on the particulars of the security systems, Alex is tightly-wound and detail-orientated. Taking time to try on expensive clothes that she could never afford, Rocky is a striver desperately looking for a way out of her situation.

Don't make a sound.

Don’t make a sound.

The leading trio never feel like fully formed characters, instead appearing as broadly-drawn standard issue protagonists slotted into an affectionate horror homage. At the very least, Fede Alvarez has an exceptional taste in influences. The film’s portrayal of contemporary Detroit through steady and slow-moving cameras recalls It Follows. Early in the film, Alvarez borrows a few cues from James Wan’s work on The Conjuring and The Conjuring II, using tracking shots to give the audience a sense of geography before the action starts.

Even the film’s plot feels stitched together from a host of disparate elements. The three characters are hoping for one last score, planning a robbery that could earn them three hundred grand and set them up for life. For these characters, it is an opportunity to break out and away from a vision of Detroit that appears post-apocalyptic. Indeed, even the film’s Detroit setting feels like a nod to contemporary horror cinema; films like It Follows, Only Lovers Left Alive and Lost River have turned the city’s economic decay into fodder for more cinematic nightmares.

Reaching out.

Reaching out.

The target of this daring raid is a veteran soldier, a blind man who lost his daughter in a car accident. Naturally, the three characters find themselves in over their heads. The late-night robbery does not go to plan, and events quickly escalate. Naturally, the blind man is not only more dangerous and resourceful than he first appears, he is also hiding dangerous secrets that quickly escalate the scenario into a life or death situation for the three young robbers. For the next forty minutes, Alvarez mines that premise for every drop of tension.

Part of the excitement of the premise lies in the ambiguity. “Just because he’s blind doesn’t make him a saint,” Money observes when Alex hesitates at the idea of robbing a blind man. Nevertheless, the movie essentially asks the audience to root for three young home invaders who have targeted a disabled man living in a remote location. Although Don’t Breathe makes its leads sympathetic and keeps their intended victim mostly silent and anonymous, it adds an interesting moral complexity to the film. Yes, the situation is intense, but who is in the right? Is anyone?

Planning to rob him blind.

Planning to rob him blind.

Don’t Breathe moves locomotive for those first seventy minutes, never pausing for exposition or slowing down to catch its breath. Instead, the film structures itself as an extended a brutal chase sequence (or perhaps even a brutal guerilla war movie) through a creepy old house. (Which, admittedly, has a surprisingly well maintained exterior.) One of the nicer touches is the way in which Alvarez chooses to shoot the inevitable “pitch black” sequences; instead of opting for blue lighting like most films, the director opts for something closer to desaturated night vision.

However, the problems hit like a sledgehammer in the film’s final twenty minutes, when the film does inevitable slow down. Stephen Lang is an imposing presence and an effective monster; as portrayed by Lang, the anonymous blind man seems very much like an implacable foe. However, Don’t Breathe struggles when it decides that it is not enough for the blind veteran to fulfil the narrative role of monster. Once Don’t Breathe decides that it needs the leads’ opponent to become truly and unforgivably monstrous, it commits to that idea in the clumsiest manner possible.

The Lang Goodbye.

The Lang Goodbye.

The result is a third act that is driven by the worst instincts of the horror genre as a whole. This applies in terms of both the motivations that it attributes to the antagonist and the mysterious powers that it imparts upon him. If the first seventy minutes of Don’t Breathe affectionately reference a number of very high-quality genre pieces, than the final twenty devolve into generic schlock. The blind man’s determined pursuit of the robbers becomes almost supernatural, while his endgame feels lift from the crassest exploitation flick.

This is very disappointing, given the strength and excitement of the first seventy minutes. Don’t Breathe stumbles in the darkness, and loses its way.

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