'Don't Breathe' Will Leave You Gasping For Relief...And Financial Security
By Andrea Thompson
Hell is other people, it's been said. But lately, hell is a specific place, one which represents the collapse of the American Dream and the subsequent lack of options for so many. In this case, it's the city of Detroit in all its gritty faded glory. From “Lost River” to “Only Lovers Left Alive” to “It Follows,” Detroit has now become one of Hollywood's favorite settings to explore loss, desperation, and decay.
But “Don't Breathe” director Fede Alvarez (the “Evil Dead” remake) takes it a step further, by making Detroit a wasteland people are so desperate to escape they are willing to risk mind, body, and sanity. Or at least the three young friends Rocky (Jane Levy), Money (Daniel Zovatto), and Alex (Dylan Minnette) are in “Don't Breathe.” They're a group of small-time thieves who break into the houses of the well-off and rob them. When they learn of a blind veteran who supposedly has money from a big settlement somewhere in his house, they figure it's be an easy way to leave their illegal activities behind and skip town at the same time. They must've missed the part where one last job never leads to anything good.
Because when they break in the house, they find the man is far from the pushover they're expecting. And he's hiding a few bad deeds of his own. Soon they find themselves trapped in his house, fighting to escape. In the process, we feel as if we are seeing that rarest of things: something new. Not only is the home invasion thriller flipped on its head, making the supposed victim the monster, but it also makes the cell phones the thieves are sure to have pretty much useless. What's the point of calling the police when you're also the bad guy? And the fact that their would-be victim is the last resident of a neighborhood that's given up the ghost means that space isn't the only place where no one can hear you scream. Apparently it's also the case for Detroit landscapes.
The unnamed blind man is a terrifying villain without being too unrealistic, a miracle in itself in an age when the best monsters are often hidden. The invaders are also deeply sympathetic, also difficult for people who regularly invade the sacred space of the home. Levy's Rocky as less than a portrait of desperation than a trapped animal who knows this may be her only chance to not only escape the city that is her cage, but also to save her younger sister from their mother, who is neglectful at best. Past home invasion movies shook their heads at those misguided souls who risked everything for money, but “Don't Breathe” never loses sight of the fact that leaving the house doesn't necessarily equal escape. It also never allows us to luxuriate in the hope of a happy ending, as even the escalating body count is ultimately less terrifying than the suffocating vise of the outside world they long to see again. Brilliant camera work and effects mean we wince when a character is punched, beaten, and battered, which also destroys any sense of safety certain characters generally possess.
However, while Alvarez knows how to push, he could also learn a thing or two about holding back. The relentless pace feels exhausting after a while, and the one note of hope feels a bit pandering, while the rest is almost relentlessly bleak. It's been called Hitchcock on steroids, but Hitchcock was actually Hitchcock on steroids. His influence is clear, but “Don't Breathe” has no problem standing on its own.