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Review: Don’t Breathe (2016)

Don’t Breathe (2016)

Directed by: Fede Alvarez

Premise: Three young people living in Detroit break into a house inhabited by an old blind man who is believed to possess a fortune in cash. But the burglars are surprised when the old man is far more dangerous than they expected.

What Works: Don’t Breathe is an effective thriller. The movie is an example of tight and crafty filmmaking and director Fede Alvarez, who had previously helmed the 2013 remake of Evil Dead, has an aptitude for action in confined spaces. The film is extremely well shot; the imagery is dark but not murky and cinematographer Roque Baños composes long and elegant shots. Don’t Breathe takes place almost entirely inside of a single house and the film is able to be alternately claustrophobic and voluminous depending upon the call of a particular scene. The movie is very tense and it builds effectively. Alvarez wrings the potential out of this premise and the picture has an unrelenting quality similar to the original Terminator. The movie’s effectiveness divides evenly between the craft with which it has been made and the way the story keeps resetting the audience’s expectations. Don’t Breathe has a number of twists, making the movie far more surprising than its premise would suggest, and these twists also complicate the nature of the conflict. The film begins by introducing three young people from Detroit who are burglarizing wealthy home owners. The trio initially come across as a group of punks but then the movie reveals their home lives; among the burglars is a single parent who needs to get her daughter to a better life. The filmmakers do an excellent job of establishing these people as genuine characters which causes the audience to sympathize and even invest in their ill-advised decision to engage in larceny. The three criminals plan to rob an elderly homeowner who lives alone in an otherwise deserted Detroit neighborhood and here again the movie preys effectively on our sympathies. These people are going to steal from a blind old man, setting us up to feel a certain way, but the homeowner is violent and cunning and he has secrets of his own that, once revealed, shift the audience’s sympathies back to the crew of burglars. The increasing moral complexity of the conflict in Don’t Breathe complicates and deepens the material well beyond expectations and the combination of this complexity with the crafty moviemaking results in a consistently engaging story.

What Doesn’t: Don’t Breathe only runs eighty-eight minutes but even at that length the movie feels padded and overextended. The filmmakers do a good job exploring the possibilities of the conceit of this story but there is only so much to be done with a handful of characters playing cat and mouse inside of a house and toward the end the picture feels as though it is repeating itself for the sake of reaching a feature length. There’s also a few elements of Don’t Breathe that strain the credibility of the story. Some of the twists don’t make sense, especially if the viewer tries to think them through after the movie is over. But Don’t Breathe is one of those thrillers that holds the audience’s attention so adroitly that these problems won’t occur to the viewer until later. But one glaring flaw of Don’t Breathe is in its casting. This story takes place in Detroit, a city in which over eighty percent of the residents are people of color. But for some reason virtually the entire cast of this movie consists of white actors. Because of its small scale, the homogenous casting of Don’t Breathe is less egregious than the sprawling cast of the Atlanta-based movie Mother’s Day. But there is nevertheless a disconnect between the cast and the setting and it’s a missed opportunity to do something provocative with race and narrative expectations.

Bottom Line: Don’t Breathe is a well-made thriller that is tense but also smart. The picture has interesting characters and some surprising twists. A few aspects of it are incredible and it’s not as subversive as The Purge: Election Year but it is a solidly entertaining mix of thrills and horror.

Episode: #610 (September 4, 2016)