Three years ago, Fede Alvarez proved that he was a talent to watch. Evil Dead is a great film, tense and horrific and, more than anything else, polished (in stark contrast to the original film, which is anything but (which is a large part of its charm (I’m a big fan of The Evil Dead, let’s be clear))). I haven’t seen Ataque de Pánico!, the short that convinced Sam Raimi of Alvarez’s skill, but I have no doubt that it is a quality piece of work.
A new film feels long overdue, and so Don’t Breathe had a fair bit of expectation behind it. The positively glowing reception has only increased the hype. Filmmaker Magazine’s “The best American horror film of the past 20 years” is high praise indeed. So I went in with that hanging over it as well. It had a lot to live up to. And, I’m happy to report that it met those expectations. (Mostly.)
Director: Fede Alvarez
Release Date: August 26th, 2016
Let’s talk about genre for a minute: Don’t Breathe is being sold as a home invasion film, and it is that; but it’s also not really. It’s not a home invasion film like The Strangers or Funny Games is. This isn’t a film about a family whose home is being invaded by evil forces; it’s about the invaders themselves. And, more importantly, it’s about the invaders trying to escape. In this case, the invaders are three dumb young 20somethings(?) who rob houses because one of them, Alex, has a dad who works for a security company. They follow strict rules: No cash, a take under $10,000, because law enforcement will go easier on them as a result of it. (These are Alex’s rules; he is very worried about things going wrong.)
The team learns about an old, blind veteran, Norman Nordstrom, who won a lot of money in a settlement after his daughter was killed in a car accident. To get out of Detroit, they decide to go after it, breaking their rules in the hopes of never needing to do it again. So they invade a home. It’s locked with more than just the security key (odd) but make it in there anyway. And once they’re inside, things go from bad to worse. Attempting to knock Norman out only serves to wake him up, and though he can’t see anything that’s around him, he’s still plenty capable of causing serious damage to the people who have come into his home.
There are a lot of things about this premise that are interesting, but the best thing Don’t Breathe has going for it is the inherent tension in a scene where one character is silent as Norman walks by them, oblivious to their presence. In these moments, you grip the arm of your chair (or whomever you’re sitting next to), terrified that they’ll make some kind of noise and end up maimed or dead or worse (and yeah, there’s a “worse,” which by now you’ve probably already heard about but I was (un?)fortunate enough to have not had that spoiled). I will admit that the tension is mildly undercut by the fact that sometimes it seems like he’s too oblivious. And I don’t mean that I think the guy should be Daredevil, but the moments where he notices things seem a bit arbitrary given some of the things he doesn’t notice. It didn’t really bother me much at the time, though, which I think is a testament to the effectiveness of the filmmaking.
I like long takes. I like long takes a lot. And Don’t Breathe makes excellent use of them. A few years back, a cabin-in-the-woods film called Honeymoon used a long take to introduce us to the house where much of the film would take place. Don’t Breathe does something similar, going through and showing us pretty much everything we need to keep track of for the next hour or so. But as excellently staged as that is, the best uses come later. There are two that stick in my mind, but the one that exemplifies the unique tension this film can create comes in a long take as Alex tries to avoid Norman. You think he’s gone, but then he appears again (something he does a Batman number of times over the course of the film (so maybe he should be Daredevil)), and it doesn’t break away. It’s a beautifully conceived scene and a brilliantly executed one. For that moment alone, this film is worthy of praise.
One thing Don’t Breathe is not, though, is particularly scary. There are jumpy moments (thankfully not accompanied by the obnoxiously loud sounds that tend to plague modern horror movies), but it’s never really fear-inducing. It keeps you on the edge of your seat rather than trying to burrow into it. And it doesn’t let up once it begins; many people have described the film as “relentless,” and I think that’s an excellent word for it. It just keeps going and going; there are probably five (maybe more) moments where you think it’s over and then some new wrench gets thrown into the works. Still, though a couple people were shouting “ARE YOU KIDDING ME?!” at the screen by the end of it, it doesn’t feel too long. It breaks you down just as it breaks down the characters, demoralizing you as it does them. It’s efficient, effective, and ruthless. But, really, what else would you expect? This is the man who made Evil Dead.
I like having directors whose work I can trust. I like to have people to follow and projects to hype for sight unseen. With his two films, I think Fede Alvarez has more than proved himself to be worthy of everyone’s attention. His work has a unique (and honestly spectacular) style, and I am excited to see where he goes from here. Don’t Breathe is great, and those flaws that it has don’t spoil the experience. I expect I’ll be seeing this one again soon, looking to see what things I missed the first time around and just enjoying a well-crafted and executed film. Bravo, Mr. Alvarez, this is your second Flixist Editor’s Choice. I hope I don’t have to wait another three years before we can give you another.