Don’t Breathe Review: Also Don’t Go See It
Don’t Breathe starts out doing everything right, but never quite transcending the suspense/thriller premise. Then it takes a turn so unpleasant it goes from being mediocre to just plain gross.
Rocky (Jane Levy) wants to escape her small town where she’s trapped at home with an alcoholic mother and step lover. Not sure the mother officially remarried. Rocky robs houses with Alex (Dylan Minette) and Money (Daniel Zovatto). They think they’ve got the ultimate score that will give Rocky enough money to take her sister and leave town, but when they rob a blind Gulf War veteran (Stephen Lang), they get trapped in his house and become his victims.
So writers Fede Alvarez and Rodo Sayagues breeze through the setup quickly and efficiently. We see the trio in action, so we know their routine. We learn just enough about Alex and Rocky to sympathize with them. Alex is cautious and attentive to the laws, instructing his partners to keep the take under $10,000 to avoid more serious police attention. He’s also got a crush on Rocky, who’s romantically involved with the more dangerous Money.
Once they scope out the blind man’s house, they think the vacant neighborhood will help them go unnoticed. Of course, the audience knows we’re really learning why they’re on their own and vulnerable. Director Alvarez plays with sound effectively. Every shard of glass, every footstep counts and sets the scene. In the early stages of the break-in, Alvarez plays with sound and silence, letting Lang’s character walk right by the robbers, and one creak changes the entire dynamic of the film.
Don’t Breathe allows us to sympathize with Rocky and Alex because Money is the dangerous wild card who got them into this. Yes, they are taking advantage of a vulnerable person, but they were also misled. Each room in the house is a new set piece of danger, and a character can be suddenly thrown into a different room of the house and forced to adapt to their circumstances.
Once secrets are revealed, Don’t Breathe touches on a potentially interesting moral debate. There are crimes worse than breaking and entering, so they have to decide whether to do the right thing or continue to be self-interested. They can’t keep the money if they give themselves up. They don’t spend more than a scene discussing each development in this, as morality isn’t what’s on the film’s mind. It’s just another plot twist.
Still, all of this is competent but never quite hooked me as anything more than standard “heist gone wrong” stuff. It works well enough, but I wouldn’t have recommended seeking out Don’t Breathe as any exemplary example of the genre.
Then there is a twist that I won’t spoil, though you can probably see it coming. It is just so unpleasant that it’s just more gross than horrific. It deals with something you could certainly claim is a horror present in real life, but including it in a movie is a conscious choice. Horror can be all in good fun, or it can be examining truly horrific things, but the later is a delicate balance, and it’s telling that Don’t Breathe tries to have it both ways.
There is a sequence in a car that comes after the unpleasant twist. It is a great sequence but coming after the gross part; there’s no more fun to be had. Alvarez had success pushing buttons with his Evil Dead remake, and indeed he took the original’s most taboo scene and went bigger. Don’t Breathe didn’t need to be taboo and would have done better to focus entirely on fun horror, so we could delight in the deadly misadventure rather than being truly repulsed.