A while back, a correspondent introduced me to the phrase “boutique horror”. He used it as a phrase to describe films like The Babadook, It Follows, Goodnight Mommy, The Witch, Oculus, and other films in that vein. You know, the kind of low-budget indie horror films that focus more on atmosphere than spectacle.
I personally love the trend, precisely because it puts a greater focus on atmosphere. The constant sense of wonder, always anticipating what if anything awaits around the corner, has always been so much more terrifying to me than finding umpteen new ways to kill people in bloody fashion. These films also tend to have some strong thematic hook, and (as my readers may have picked up on by now) I much prefer movies that give me something deep and complex to write about online.
That said, the phrase “boutique horror” implies a pretentious sort of quality, like a movie isn’t nearly as edgy or scary or intelligent as the filmmakers seem to think it is. It also implies a deceptive lack of depth, as if the characters and the world they inhabit aren’t nearly as interesting or well-developed as they should be for all the time we spend with them. All of these complaints have been leveled against the above-mentioned films by various detractors at some point. And the problems have been especially hard to deny ever since Lights Out, which was practically a textbook example of “boutique horror” and everything wrong with the movement.
But this is made a much more difficult subject by the fact that horror is so incredibly subjective, even by the usual standards of cinema. As much as I love the atmospheric and intellectual kind of horror, there’s a very strong case to be made for the visceral thrill of seeing unsympathetic characters get brutally slain. By all appearances, Don’t Breathe was built as a kind of happy middle ground between the two approaches. Of course, the downside of trying to satisfy both parties is that you could end up pleasing neither. So let’s take a closer look, shall we?
The film comes to us from director/co-writer Fede Alvarez, previously known for his (better than expected, but still not good enough to catch fire) attempt at rebooting the Evil Dead franchise. It’s interesting to note that Sam Raimi and Rob Tapert are still working alongside Alvarez, producing this film via their Ghost House Pictures enterprise. The movie also features Jane Levy, an alumna of Evil Dead (2013) and arguably the best performer in that cast. I’m honestly quite disappointed that it’s taken her this long to show up in another noteworthy picture.
Getting to the actual film, we lay our scene in the poverty-stricken city of Detroit. Levy plays Rocky, a young woman who lives with her twee little sister (inexplicably named “Diddy” and played by Emma Bercovici), along with their abusive white trash mother (Ginger, played by Katia Bokor) and whatever sugar daddy she’s hooked herself onto this week. We later learn that Rocky’s father left them when she was little.
Rocky dreams of taking her sister so they can run away from Detroit and seek greener pastures in California. I’m pretty sure there’s at least one government authority that might call that kidnapping, but whatever. The long and short of it is that Rocky needs money to get out of dodge.
To gather the money, she solicits the help of two young men. As they rob houses.
One of her accomplices is Alex, played by Dylan Minnette. His dad works for a security firm, so Alex is able to procure the keys and security codes for houses all over Detroit. Particularly the more lucrative houses belonging to whatever well-to-do families are still in that godforsaken city. And I guess there isn’t a single cop in the entire Detroit PD who couldn’t piece together that every last one of these home invasions just so happened to have a security system from the same firm.
But that’s just a drop in the bucket compared to… *ahem* “Money”, played by Daniel Zovatto. He claims to be Rocky’s boyfriend, even though they have zero chemistry and they don’t say or do anything with each other to suggest any kind of romantic attachment. Rocky is a heavily-tatted wannabe gangster, so loud and arrogant and thoroughly incompetent that it’s a wonder his ego hasn’t already gotten him caught or killed. This is a guy who would leave behind heavily incriminating DNA evidence by breaking into someone’s house to piss all over their floor. No joke, he literally does that in the opening minutes.
Luckily, as the trailers have already told us, Money is the first one to die. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
(Side note: I was quite surprised to recall that this isn’t the first time Zovatto and Minnette have acted as partners in crime — they once guest starred together on an episode of “Agents of SHIELD”, all the way back in season 1.)
The actual plot begins when Money hears tell of an old blind war veteran (known only as “The Blind Man”, played by Stephen Lang) whose daughter was killed in a car accident. Because the driver came from a wealthy family, the case never went to court and the Blind Man was given hundreds of thousands of dollars in a massive cash settlement. It’s also worth noting that the Blind Man lives at an old house in one of Detroit’s most desolate neighborhoods, but he still has a security system… provided by Alex’s father.
Money is convinced that the settlement cash is still sitting there in that house. Because simply from looking at the Blind Man and his house, it’s clear that he hasn’t spent much of it. But what makes everyone so sure he hasn’t put it in a bank or the stock market the way any sensible person might? “Because he’s so paranoid, he wouldn’t trust anyone else.” Can’t argue with that logic, right?
In case it isn’t immediately obvious, the plot to this movie has some problems. The characters are pathetically thin archetypes, all various degrees of boilerplate and unsympathetic. The plot is loaded with holes and contrivances. There isn’t anything even remotely scary in the entire first act except for a godawful jump scare from the Blind Man’s attack dog (and it’s not the last one, I’m sorry to say). Luckily, a lot of that stems from how the first act is so rushed. Because we’re not really off to the races until the break-in actually happens, shit goes bad in a huge way, and the filmmakers were smart enough not to make us wait for that any longer than we needed to.
See, the Blind Man is a killing machine. He’s highly trained. He’s pissed off. He can kill with his bare hands, with a gun, or with any other weapon in reach. His other four senses are crazy sharp, even if he can’t see. He knows every inch of his house from top to bottom, and he’s got enough locks in place to make sure that nobody gets out. Oh, and he’s also perfectly within his legal right to kill the armed burglars who broke into his house.
So why does he bother with this whole cat-and-mouse chase instead of calling the cops? Well… let’s just say that he’s hiding something he’d prefer nobody else to learn about, and it’s a lot more than cash. I can’t say any more without spoilers, but suffice to say that this storyline goes to some deeply, DEEPLY fucked-up places before the credits roll.
To recap: In the one corner, we have a trio of delinquent idiots who go breaking into homes and stealing things. In the other corner, we have a homicidal psychopath. So what we really have here is a battle of “bad versus evil”. We get to watch these two sides hunt each other down, knowing that all the pain they inflict on each other is entirely justified. Watching this film, I wasn’t rooting for one side or the other — I was rooting for these two sides to destroy each other, and that was endlessly compelling to watch.
All of that said, at least the Blind Man was content to live out the rest of his days in his house, without actively going out to commit more crimes like Team Burglary does. But on the other hand, it’s made abundantly clear that the Blind Man is so far past redemption that he’s guaranteed to die a monster. Compare that to Rocky and Alex (we know Money dies first, so he doesn’t count), both of whom are essentially good-hearted kids stuck in a bad spot. There’s still a chance that they could reform later on and come out of this having learned their lesson. Even if they have to go the rest of their lives with the guilt and trauma of these events, figuring out how to spend and save so many thousands of dollars without raising suspicion.
The film clearly sides with our trio of wannabe criminals, but it helps that the filmmakers don’t let them completely off the hook. To that end, Alex is on hand to serve as the group’s conscience, keeping his friends informed about how much prison time they could be facing if things keep escalating. Yet he never does this in a way that denies his share of culpability — if anything, he’s more freaked out precisely because of his own culpability.
Minnette has been an up-and-comer for some time now, and this is the first time I’ve ever seen him make any kind of a distinct impression. The character called for a mild-mannered nobody who could plausibly break some skulls if he’s pushed far enough, and Minnette makes the transition work like precious few actors of his age ever could. It helps of course that he does a fine job of acting against Jane Levy, and I can’t possibly tell you how underrated she is as an actor.
With regards to our de facto protagonists, it should be mentioned that Alvarez seems to have inherited a crucial trait from his mentor: Suffering. If you look through Sam Raimi’s filmography — from the Evil Dead trilogy to the Spider-Man trilogy right up to Oz the Great and Powerful — you’ll find at least one scene in which the lead characters are put in humiliating and/or painful situations. The man loves torturing his protagonists, and Alvarez clearly loves the same. These characters are put through absolute hell, and we’re made to feel every cut and bruise. Of course, the primary difference is that while Raimi cruelly toyed with his lead characters in a way that often resulted in comic relief (Ash Williams vs. his demonic miniature clones in Army of Darkness, for instance), Rocky and Alex are put through all kinds of physical and psychological punishment just because… well, they’ve kinda earned it. It’s a different kind of satisfaction, but definitely not one that’s the least bit cartoonish or funny.
Not that I’m complaining, you understand. In fact, if Alvarez had gone that route, it would have damaged the tone considerably.
Regarding Stephen Lang, he is easily the most compelling actor in this film, bar none. His body language seems to evoke that of an old wolf, leaving us to wonder if he’s processing his sensory input in some primal way or if he really is just going insane. With precious few lines of dialogue and nothing but his mere screen presence, Lang effectively sells the Blind Man as a terrifying threat who could easily fool anyone into thinking that he’s harmless.
But then the third act comes, and the Blind Man starts going on about various subjects from income inequality to the existence of a just and loving God. Also, it’s interesting to note that the Blind Man is primarily defined and motivated as a father who lost his daughter. This serves as an intriguing contrast to Rocky, a daughter who was given up by her father. None of this stuff goes anywhere in terms of forming a coherent theme, but it’s just enough to give us a look into the Blind Man’s head, so we can better understand his actions and why the world would be better off without him. And anyway, excessive time spent on the theme would only serve to drag down the otherwise streamlined film.
This brings me to what is by far the movie’s biggest strength: The pacing. The plot is structured beautifully, with reveals and twists in just the right places and tension that keeps relentlessly building. This is greatly assisted by the sound design, specifically designed to highlight every tiny noise onscreen. As a direct result, the audience is encouraged to keep an ear out for the slightest disturbance, drawing us in so thoroughly that I could swear I heard a fly passing gas it was that quiet.
It’s right there in the title: Don’t Breathe. Watching this film, I kept on trying to hold my breath just to make that much less noise for myself. And if I’m actively holding my breath from start to finish in eager anticipation for what comes next… well, isn’t that really the least you can ask from a thriller like this one?
Don’t Breathe has some thin characters and a lot of plot holes, but those issues are far less problematic after the first fifteen minutes or so. The lack of sympathetic characters isn’t a bug, it’s a feature. And once the characters start to try and outsmart each other, fighting to stay alive as they punish each other for their sins in unspeakable ways, events start to happen at such a dizzying pace that suspension of disbelief takes over quite easily. The visuals and sound design are spellbinding, and the film moves at a remarkably fast pace, all of which adds up to a deftly made and alarmingly fun movie.
That said, it’s still an 88-minute film. It’s hard to justify paying full price for such a brief picture, especially when the whole movie is designed in such a way that the slightest disturbance in the audience could leave a huge impact. To that end, I would definitely recommend this for home video. With your lights out, your phone off, and your headphones on.