Unflinching, unrelenting & unforgiving, Don’t Breathe is a nail-bitingly tense, extremely riveting & endlessly thrilling slice of breakneck cinema that breathes an air of freshness into the home-invasion subgenre of horror by subverting a few tropes and makes ingenious use of genre elements throughout its runtime to finish as a genuinely unsettling & highly satisfying thriller that’s simple plotted, cleverly constructed & effectively told from start to finish.
The story of Don’t Breathe follows a trio of petty thieves who break into houses that are secured by one of the accomplices’ father’s security company. Desperate to move to a new place and start afresh, they decide to carry out one last robbery after learning about a blind war veteran who may have around $300,000 cash stashed in his house. Expecting it to be an easy heist, they break into his house but soon find out that the blind man is more than capable of defending himself.
Co-written & directed by Fede Alvarez, Don’t Breathe is his sophomore effort but it still serves as an excellent showcase of his skills & understanding of the genre. By taking the usual home-invasion thriller template and twisting some of its conventions, Alvarez here succeeds in delivering something that feels fresh & original. The premise is simple, the story is told from intruders’ perspectives, the stakes are raised by taking away the abilities of the supposed victim, and the result of these changes are hugely rewarding.
Another impressive thing about Don’t Breathe is that it places greater emphasis on its suspenseful atmosphere and relies on its perfectly carved moments of horror to tap into the viewers’ primal fears instead of plainly shocking them with excess violence & mindless gore. The characters don’t have enough flesh on their arcs but they are still serviceable to the plot and are efficiently handled. Also noteworthy is the cluelessness about who to root for as in the end, all of them turn out to be despicable in their own ways.
Majority of the events unfold inside the blind man’s house and the production design team does a fantastic job to add more menace to its minimal setting by providing a labyrinth-like structure to it. Cinematography is one of its biggest strengths as camera is expertly employed in each scene plus the cleverly chosen angles, skilful use of slow-mo or tracking shots, and fantastic use of low-light photography greatly amplify its ominous tone & nerve-wracking aura. Editing is razor-sharp for the most part and the entire film is brilliantly paced but there are also a few glaring issues with it.
To mention a few, there was absolutely no need to open the film with that flash-forward segment, for it unnecessarily spoils one character’s fate and lingers on viewers’ minds from that moment onwards. It is one lazy trick that is quickly becoming the norm of lately as more n more filmmakers are afraid to begin their stories with a natural opening act, fearing that the audience may lose interest if they are not given something to hold on to. Instead, what it eventually implies is their own lack of confidence in their material, resulting in them resorting to such cheap tricks to keep the viewers around.
The audience would have been far more involved in the story & the fate of its characters if they had no idea of where it was headed in the first place. Also uncalled for is its final moment where the film attempts to set up the basis for a sequel. However, almost everything that lies between its opening & closing moments makes up for a lean, mean & intense cinema that makes terrific use of available resources to successfully accomplish what it set out to do. The build up is steady, the suspenseful ambience is naturally established, and it is absolutely relentless once those thieves enter the dilapidated house.
Sound is another one of its highlights that works in perfect harmony with its sinister score to further ratchet up the tension to disquieting levels. Coming to the acting department, its small cast consists of Stephen Lang, Jane Levy, Dylan Minnette & Daniel Zovatto, with Lang & Levy impressing the most. Playing the blind war veteran, Lang delivers a performance so imposing & intimidating that his character comes off as a haunting figure, meant to be feared. Levy is in as one of the delinquents and does a convincing job at it while the Rottweiler present in the movie pretty much steals every scene it is in.
On an overall scale, Don’t Breathe is one of the most delightful surprises of the year that’s fabulously directed, smartly scripted, masterly photographed, tightly edited, effectually scored & sincerely performed. Even though it isn’t without its shortcomings, the positives here do outweigh the negatives by a considerable margin. Making outstanding use of all its elements to deliver maximum chills, and leaving its viewers breathless at times, Don’t Breathe is one of the best films to surface on the big screen this year, one of the finest entries in home-invasion subgenre of horror, and is absolutely destined to garner a cult following.