The suspense genre is a tricky one– residing in the nebulous overlap between thriller and horror, these films liberally appropriate tropes from either side with abandon. The resulting product can appear like an overzealous diner who has greedily heaped their plate high at an All-You-Can-Eat Chinese buffet (as if a second run for spring rolls is not allowed). Fede Alvarez’s “Don’t Breathe” has very nearly struck the perfect balance, carefully arranging visual and narrative elements of these two genres onto the plate of his new, unique suspense film. Unlike a trip to the buffet, a handful of antacids and a nap are not required follow- up measures.
“If we do this right we never have to do it again.”
The fateful utterance is delivered by the pop-eyed Rocky (Jane Levy), as her trio of financially depressed hoodlums plan their ‘last’ burglary. With her lover, the thuggish Money (Daniel Zovatto) and tech-sophisticate Alex (Dylan Minnette), Rocky participates in a seemingly plausible scam in the decrepit sub-urban Detroit; using keys and codes from Alex’s father’s security firm, they enter well-to-do homes, pilfering just enough to turn a profit and avoid a felony charge. As has become vogue in several recent horror/thrillers (See: “It Follows”), the urban decay of the Detroit sprawl is a new grim tableau where the Kantian rules of society are wavering and terrible things have begun to go bump in the night.
A lead from Money’s criminal-fence leads the team of teenage burglars out into the heart of the empty, haunted dystopia– a single, untarnished home standing amongst the quietly moldering ruins. Here, it is rumored, that a blind Iraqi war vet has stashed away a tidy fortune– three hundred thousand dollars in settlement money from a terrible family tragedy.
“The whole neighborhood is empty,” Money marvels out the window of his rusty muscle car. “This guy is the last man standing.”
Desperate to escape a preposterously awful home-life, Rocky urges her male beaus into infiltrating the house for the cash. Before long, the trio is plunged into literal darkness, as their enfeebled, sightless mark, Norman (the terrifying Stephen Lang), reveals himself to be a cunning, muscular nightmare.
Alvarez, hot off the success of his first outing with the highly competent reboot “Evil Dead” (2014), delivers on the promise of his pedigree as Sam Raimi’s cinematic heir for medium-budget thrills. Wordlessly, Alvarez constructs a delightful visual rhetoric, generating tension and narrative expectations as the gaze of the camera tracks from room to room. Items like a deadbolt lock, a sledgehammer, a shard of glass and carelessly placed pairs of shoes offer tantalizing expectations. These are delightfully payed-off as Rocky and Co. desperately attempt to escape the suburban fortress.
The premise of a blind villain is skillfully iterated on with much aplomb by Alvarez in marvelous ways, creating a horror dynamic that is heretofore unseen (ha!). The titular choice is apt– the armed Norman frequently charges into the same space as the teens, causing them to hold their breath, as the slightest utterance could be their grisly end. The technique is highly empathetic– the audience unwittingly become stock still, breath held as Norman tests the air with his nose, sharp ears surveying his aural landscape. Another sequence plunges the victims into darkness, causing them elude and do battle with Norman on his sensory level. The scenario is extremely tense and delightful, Alvarez having a clear psychological sense of what makes for suspenseful and thrilling cinema.
“Don’t Breathe” presents characters that are thin, but continuously make such smart, logical choices during their ordeal that the scarcity is forgiven. What perhaps is less forgivable, is a third act twist that edges the narrative into the realm of the silly. The unfortunate choice is replete with a gross-out, on the nose rape metaphor that will certainly go down in the annals of cinematic infamy. The moment and scenario passes by quickly enough, but the incident remains extraneous. What is worse, the close game of cat and mouse between Norman and the interlopers so skillfully contrived by Alvarez takes on a new cast in the aftermath– there is no longer a question as to which side is the most villainous in this horrifying scenario.
Alvarez is a filmmaker to watch, and “Don’t Breathe” is a satisfying work delivering equal portions of horror, tension and suspense. Much like some of a buffet’s more questionable offerings (here is looking at you, prawns), some elements of the work are best ignored. Suspense is now served.
Running time: 88 Minutes
Now playing in theaters