Sunday, August 28, 2016

Review: Don't Breathe

Image courtesy of Sony Pictures.
Fede Alvarez's "Don't Breathe" is an intense and well made thriller that takes one giant misstep, but is overall an effective genre offering with great atmosphere and a vast improvement over the director's previous movie, the dreadful "Evil Dead" remake.

During the past few years, Detroit has been a popular backdrop for horror movies, from Jim Jarmusch's sardonic vampire tale "Only Lovers Left Alive" to David Robert Mitchell's extremely spooky "It Follows." Alvarez's film also makes great use of that town's dilapidated and burnt-out buildings and captures the essence of a city that never fully recovered from the economic downturn.

The film makes the interesting choice of asking us to sympathize with a group of characters who are not particularly likable. Rocky (Jane Levy) lives with her abusive mother in a trailer and is attempting to get money so that she and her young daughter can flee and ship off to California. Her mother - in front of Rocky's daughter no less - makes caustic remarks that indicate the possibility that Rocky has turned to prostitution at some point to feed her daughter.

Rocky's boyfriend, Money (Daniel Zovatto), is the typical thug asshole paramour, who has enlisted her and Alex (Dylan Minnette), who is smitten with Rocky, to take part in a robbery at the secluded house of a blind old Gulf War veteran who collected a large sum of money after his daughter was killed in a car accident and is apparently keeping the stash somewhere in the home.

I know what you're thinking - what a bunch of creeps to rip off a defenseless old man. And that's exactly what the filmmakers are expecting you to think as they turn the tables on both the thieves and the audience when it turns out that the old guy (Stephen Lang, very creepy) is not quite helpless.

For much of the film, the leads - or the ones who have made it past the first 30 minutes of the movie - crawl through the spaces of the vet's house, trying to avoid him and his ferocious dog. When they end up in his basement, they make a startling discovery that portrays the blind man in a significantly less sympathetic light.

And it's shortly after this that "Don't Breathe" makes its one near-fatal mistake by relying on one of the oldest - and still worst - plot contrivances in the book: creating suspense by making a female lead believe that she will be raped or, in the case of this movie, a variation thereof. Of course, rape - like any subject matter - can be touched upon in film and even in genre movies, but it's more often than not used immaturely as a means of entertainment, or, a cheap thrill.

One of the film's strongest elements is its sense of place, not only in the streets of Detroit, where the camera roams amid hauntingly abandoned neighborhoods, but also within the house itself. As the thieves make their way into the house, the camera roves from room too room, creating a sense of surrounding where the characters will all be battling for their lives during the next 90 minutes. Alvarez's previous picture - "Evil Dead" - was also stylish, but vacuous and grotesque for the sake of being so, whereas his latest is proof of a talent behind the camera. "Don't Breathe" isn't a perfect horror movie by any means, but it's a pretty decent one.

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