Director: Fede Alvarez
Cast: Jane Levy, Stephen Lang, Dylan Minnette, Daniel Zovatto
MPAA Rating: (for terror, violence, disturbing content, and language throughout including sexual references)
Running Time: 1:28
Release Date: 8/26/16
Review by Mark Dujsik | August 25, 2016
Director Fede Alvarez and Rodo Sayagues' screenplay for Don't Breathe presents a clever reversal on the setup of a home-invasion thriller. Our protagonists are the thieves, and it's the homeowner who serves as the story's antagonist. The juggling act here is to keep our sympathies about even on both sides of the conflict or, at least, to make us feel a bit morally queasy about the whole affair. At least one of the thieves really needs the money, but the man who owns the house that this trio is invading shouldn't be the one to fund her needs against his will.
What we learn about Rocky (Jane Levy) before the robbery attempt is unsettling. She has a young daughter and is living with her mother, who abused Rocky in the past. She recalls a story of her mother locking her in the trunk of a car, because the girl was crying about her leaving father. Now, the mother is a lay-about and a leech on the young woman. There's no reason she should be in this situation, and there's even less reason—if that's possible—for the young girl to be raised in such an environment.
What we learn about the man (Stephen Lang) who owns the home is sad. He's a veteran of the Gulf War who was blinded in combat. He lives alone in a deserted neighborhood of Detroit and will spend days without leaving the house. His daughter was killed by a motorist. On a shelf in his house, there are framed photographs of the daughter (One rather pitiful detail is that one of those photos is upside-down). Before he goes to bed, he puts on home movies of his daughter as a little girl to fall asleep to the sounds of happier times in his life.
The money came from a settlement arranged by the motorist's family. Rocky's boyfriend Money (Daniel Zovatto) thinks there's about $300,000 hidden somewhere in the house. The blind man is paranoid—a front door with four locks, bar-covered windows, an alarm system, a Rottweiler for a guard dog. Money assumes that means the man keeps the cash close.
Alex (Dylan Minnette), the third of the thieves, is the son of the man who runs a local security company. He has access to duplicate keys to the homes of any of his father's customers. Alex is opposed to stealing from the blind man, but Rocky convinces him.
The background on these characters isn't much, but Alvarez gets a decent amount of mileage from the details that are here. Both Rocky and Alex are reluctant participants in the trio's crime spree. We see the three burgle a different house in the film's second scene (The first is an impressive wide shot overlooking a street that gradually moves down—as if a camera operator in a helicopter had passed the camera to a crane—to get a closer look at a figure dragging something), and it's around that point that we realize the only one getting a kick out of this behavior is Money, who breaks a vase and urinates on the dining room floor.
Money—the character, obviously—isn't in play for long, so the conflict here really is between two parties to whom we can relate on a rudimentary level. To an extent, Alvarez and Sayagues are playing with notion of what's legally correct and what's morally right. Money brings a gun to the burglary, escalating the legal status of the crime to a robbery and making the blind man legally justified in just about any action he would take against them. The thieves are legally and morally wrong in their actions, although Rocky's motives are at least understandable. The next question is whether the blind man takes the defense of his household too far on the moral spectrum.
It's a neat hook from a perspective of giving us reason to simultaneously sympathize with and be put off by both parties, but it's mostly a reason for the screenwriters to set up an elaborately staged, finely choreographed game of cat and mouse within the limited confines of the house. Alvarez and cinematographer Pedro Luque establish the layout of the house almost subliminally in a one-take that follows the three thieves search the first floor for the cash, and they also accomplish a constant sense of claustrophobia in even the larger spaces of the house through tight camera placement and strategic shadows. An especially tense chase through the pitch-black cellar is shown in gray, monochromatic night vision.
The gimmick, of course, is that the cat in this particular game is blind and that, as a result, the mice must remain as quiet as possible, lest they give away their presence (The physicality of Lang's performance is exceptional in the way it conveys a predatory animalism). Alvarez' use of silence and stillness as means of generating tension here is particularly successful.
There must come a point of reckoning for the film (and these characters, of course, in moments of violence that are as inevitable as they are brutal). It will have to decide—one way or the other—whether to side with the thieves or the blind man. That is to be expected. The way Alvarez and Sayagues re-define the legal and moral standings of these characters, though, goes more than a bit too far, namely in the use of the threat of sexual assault as a convenient plot device.
The last act of Don't Breathe goes a bit off the rails in terms of its method, too, but even then, it remains an only slightly diminished exercise in tension. Before that, it's a really effective one.
Copyright © 2016 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.
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