“What if we made a movie where a bunch of thieves tried to rob a blind rapist who kept the killer of his daughter prisoner?” - A sentence that somehow likely came out of a screenwriter’s mouth.
Sometimes a dumb idea can be a lot smarter than it appears, and Don’t Breathe is the perfect example of that. The premise sounds stupid, but it is done ingeniously. It doesn’t just entertain, instead it fully involves your senses and our fears to make for a mostly terrifying ride. The first two-thirds do so much with so little that the climax and ending are such a disappointment that you swear the filmmakers just didn’t think.
Rocky (Jane Levy) does professional thieving with her friends Alex (Dylan Minnette) and her boyfriend Money (Daniel Zovatto) in wealthy and run down sections of Detroit. Rocky has a terrible life that she only finds happiness in when dreaming about California and ladybugs. That sounds weird, but bear with me here.
Alex is the Good-Hearted Friend that provides the keys (through his father’s security company) to break into these houses. He has a secret attraction to Rocky that Money doesn’t mind using to constantly berate him with. That guy is so unlikable that the decision to kill him off quickly is one of the best things this movie does.
He’s killed when the trio decide to rob the house of a blind man (Stephen Lang), and that kicks off a horror film that doubles as an adrenaline rush. Many scary flicks overuse the jump-scare, but this one utilizes it in a way that’s really shocking. There’s no supernatural elements here, but the house might as well be haunted with the way director Fede Alvarez treats the blind man like a monster of his own.
He moves around his own house like a stalker, somebody that can hear a creak in the floorboard and know exactly where it’s coming from. The entire soul of Don’t Breathe runs through him, and Alvarez uses him as the tool to pump up the movie with violence and thrills. With the blind man running around the house with a gun, the film becomes a tightly wound suspense-fest where everybody always seems misstep away from getting killed.
Alvarez deserves credit for creating something that’s effective in keeping the tension throughout, regardless of how credible the plot ends up being. That’s good directing, and he’ll have a good future in horror movies if he decides to emphasizes the premise and play with its results as he does here.
The set-up here doesn’t exactly payoff, thanks to a series of confusing would-be deaths and a couple scenes that weren’t really thought out. The worst is the trailer-featured moment where Alex and Rocky walk around in the pitch-black basement, an idea that sounds chilling, but on-screen just looks like a bunch of people fumbling around in the dark. It’s borderline comedic.
The twist (and subsequent disgusting acts afterward) escalate the story in a fascinating way that keep you entranced, but that’s also when the movie starts to implode. The last third of Don’t Breathe trades in tightly-wound suspense for a generic run-away-from-bullets action sequence, and that’s when things start becoming a lot less scary.
Part of the reason why is because Alvarez forgets to abide by the rules he created; the blind man is shown as being capable of hand-to-hand combat and killing somebody in a snap, yet he can’t seem to kill Alex despite shooting him at point-blank range twice (one time making him fall through a window) and beating the living hell out him in a fist fight (the film’s explanation for that will make you laugh and groan). When he finally does kill him, it seems like a plot device to get Alex out of the story and leave Rocky on her own.
Don’t Breathe also starts to stumble when it leaves the house and Rocky is somehow cornered by the man’s dog after initially escaping it via jumping a fence, which leads to her being recaptured. Up to this point, logic had become a strength that slowly turned into a weakness until it just blew the movie apart. There’s no reason why the picture shouldn’t have just ended with Rocky running away and calling the cops. It’s bad Hollywood logic that seems exist so we can watch the bad guy die.
I suppose that last part was put in there to keep a short movie (around 90 minutes) from becoming an actual short film, but what’s the problem with simplicity? For the first 45 minutes, Don’t Breathe had been doing a great job with it.