As horror very much yes. As thriller, no. (Warning regarding sexual violence if you do choose to watch it).
We are in Detroit. A trio of teens break into houses and steal just under $10,000 for various ends? You see, one of these teens has a father who works for a home security company, giving him access to all the keys and gadgets required to pull off a break in. Their fence is playing hard ball and their cut is shrinking with each take. But then they catch wind of the perfect catch, a blind man who lives alone in a deserted neighbourhood. Said blind man came into money after a massive settlement when a rich girl ran over and killed his daughter.
How hard can it be to break into and rob the house of an old blind man?
Don’t Breathe is a big step up technically from the Evil Dead Remake.
It is, in fact technically proficient to surprising degree. It is quite an effective little shocker. On a technical level.
I cannot say that enough.
Everything from the sound design to the grotesque green and yellow colour palette to the camera work all combines to create a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts. It is incredibly confident. Chekhov’s guns are made evident, the geography of the house is laid out, and a red herring or two is planted all within the first few minutes of the break in. The formal elements all work towards ramping up tension. There is one sequence in particular taking place in a dark basement that is incredibly inventive, and all the more tense for it.
Gosh, even the setting of a decrepit Detroit adds a further layer of desperation to the film.
Okay, okay, point made. On an aesthetic level, Don’t Breathe is hitting out of the park. But what about the characters? They are for the most part your typical morally bankrupt teen slasher characters. Money, the muscle behind our delinquent trio is most likely named after his sole character motivation. I honestly cannot remember the names of the other two characters (though given this is a known deficit of mine, I am not sure I can blame the movie for this). There is the young lady who lives with an abusive mother and who wants to move to California with her younger sister. Then there’s the third dude, whose motivation is “girl, ???, profit,” and his sole character trait is that he spouts Hollywood legal information about how to get away breaking and entering without it being a felony.
And the old man is some kind of blind super man, capable of incredible displays of sensory perception, beyond what you could probably expect of a war veteran who took shrapnel to the face. His character motivation starts off simple and easy to sympathise with, to get the kids out of his house so he can be at peace with his attack dog. His methods, however are brutal and without sympathy.
Here’s where Don’t Breathe gets interesting in a similar way to You’re Next gets, except without the black comedy inherent in the situation. This is a home invasion thriller where the home invaders are the ones in danger.
But here is also where things get tricky on a genre level. In You’re Next, you are rooting for the home owners to prevail against the invaders. In Don’t Breathe, you’re rooting for the home owner to prevail against the invaders, who just so happen to be our main characters, the ones we should be rooting for. And this is where Don’t Breathe starts breaking down, when taken as something more than an example of formal discipline.
There are certain audience expectations when it comes to horror movies. Let me explain:
You wouldn’t normally be hoping for an armed veteran to murder a group of teenagers who broke into his house. It is morally questionable at best, but in real life, extra-judicial assassination is too extreme a punishment for the crime. HOWEVER in a horror movie, all bets are off. The genre works on a rather conservative moral compass, where any transgression is punished severely. So in the realm of the movie, the old man had the teens dead to rights. The audience expects and wants the teens’ transgressions to be punished.
But the movie also wants to play like a thriller with a mild socio-economic flavour to it, desperately wanting us to side with the teens and their desire to make a better life for themselves away from the corrupting influence of abusive adults. This is why you spend the first act paying lip service to their struggles (well at least the girl’s struggles). It’s pulls out all the stops to this end almost to the point of self sabotage. After its first act, it plays like a straight home invasion horror/thriller, sensational in its staging, but not crass in its content…
Until the third act. Until it flies off the rails into exploitation in a twist tailor made to make us sympathise harder than ever before with the teens. There are hints at it earlier on in the film, but the actual depths of crassness the full reveal sinks to is a bit too little too late for the rather slick, relatively non-grubby genre flick that came before. It does add a wrinkle of bittersweetness to the end, but it is something the movie could have done without.
And in all seriousness, it is something that could very well be triggering to survivors of sexual assault.
You have been warned.
But boy, from a technical perspective, it cements Fede Alvarez as a young genre director to look out for. Don’t Breathe is an exceptional aesthetic object in a time when such things are becoming increasingly rare in mainstream horror. Worth considering a watch on that level alone.