Movie Review: Don't Breathe
By Matthew Huntley
September 5, 2016

Seriously, if the blind dude travels via vent, we're all in trouble.

Don't Breathe promises to be sick, twisted, and depraved, and on that level, it certainly lives up to its end of the bargain. This is a lean, atmospheric and well-crafted horror-thriller that serves as a prime example of a film that deliberately sets out to make the audience feel violated and disturbed. On the flip side, it makes us feel violated and disturbed, and that makes it sort of a Catch-22. Writing as a film critic, I admire the filmmakers' techniques and the way they unabashedly and mercilessly places us in a dark and cynical world. But writing as a human being who feels it's not in our nature to hurt one another, and who believes we shouldn't glorify violence, I question whether it's right to experience something as gruesome as Don't Breathe, let alone applaud those who made it.

Don't get me wrong; I enjoy horror movies, even disturbing ones, and there are, of course, thousands of others just as unnerving as this one, if not more-so, and sometimes they're admirable (The Silence of the Lambs) while other times they're not (for the most part, any Saw sequel). There's no blanket rule for whether any film of this nature is worth recommending or not. As with all films, we must take each one on a case by case basis and ask ourselves, with all its violence, horrific imagery and morally reprehensible characters, did it at least entertain us? In other words, are we better off for having seen it?

Specifically with regards to Don't Breathe, my answer is ultimately no, though I'm on the fence. I recognize it's not easy to do what the filmmakers have accomplished here, and though the plot is an amalgamation of several other horror movies, including The Silence of the Lambs, Psycho and Cujo, among others, its execution of a few key sequences help set it apart. They also convince us the director, Fede Alvarez, knows what he's doing and is in complete control. He skillfully generates the movie's effects instead of merely dishing out torture porn.

The plot follows a trio of young, low-level criminals who routinely break into homes around Detroit, blaming the city and its dwindling economy for their behavior and woes. They steal some high-priced goods and then sell them for cash, which is a rather easy scheme to pull off since Alex (Dylan Minnette) has access to the target houses' keys, thanks to his dad's security company being the primary protector of the given property (he keeps copies of the keys locked up in his office). Rocky (Jane Levy), the lone female of the group, hopes her takings will allow her and her little sister to move to California and escape their abusive and neglectful mother, while Money (Daniel Zovatto), the archetypal machismo and hothead, has similar ambitions, though his are more selfish.

Following their latest heist, Money gets a tip from his seedy buyer that a blind army veteran living in a run-down and nearly empty neighborhood is stowing away $300k somewhere in his house, which Rocky and Money believe would put them over the top. But Alex, who's the most cautious and morally responsible of the three, not to mention well-versed in the laws they're breaking, doesn't feel right about robbing a blind man. Plus, he thinks the vet's heavily fortified house, with its many locks and bars, makes it too dangerous. However, he also has a crush on Rocky and wants to please her, maybe even run away with her, so they proceed to break into the vet's house in the middle of the night when he's asleep.

Expectedly, their plans go awry, and without giving away too many details, the army vet turns out to be a force to be reckoned with, and just as Janet Leigh's thief character from Psycho found out with Norman Bates, the characters in Don't Breathe discover “The Blind Man” gives them more than they bargained for. But the plot mixes things up a bit by revealing he's not the most innocent of victims (just wait and see what he does with a turkey baster).

The movie is called Don't Breathe for a reason. Since hearing has become The Blind Man's primary sense of detecting who's where, the characters know they can't let him hear their breaths. This is an aspect the filmmakers use to great effect. During one of the movie's best sequences, The Blind Man turns off all the lights in his house and renders his perpetrators visionless, using his own knowledge and experience of his surroundings, and perhaps his heightened other senses, to attack them. Alvarez films these scenes with a gray filter and the actors do a good job of making us believe they really are blind to what's happening around them and must reach and feel around to get their bearings. The camera follows them down ladders, through vents, out windows and through glass ceilings, all of which really put us in their space and constricted situations.

Who survives in the end is for you to find out, but what's interesting about the story is there are no clearly defined heroes. We don't particularly like or care about any of the characters, because each is contemptible in his and her own way, and while I realize not every story needs a traditional hero or heroine, particularly within the horror genre, it does make it make more difficult to get behind. I do, however, believe Alvarez and co-writer Rodo Sayagues were aware of this and wanted to challenge us by going against the conventional narrative grain, which is another way Don't Breathe distinguishes itself from others like it.

And yet, even with its stronger-than-expected qualities, I remain torn. The movie is commendable from a filmmaking perspective, but it's not a particularly “enjoyable” experience, which, oddly enough, is what I expected going in and what the ads and genre set it up to be. So do I recommend it or not? It reminded me of when somebody tells you, “This is going to hurt,” before doing whatever it is they do and then proceed to hurt you. And even though they warned you, you're still mad at them after the fact. Going into Don't Breathe, we know its intentions are to make us feel tense and squirm in our seats, but even after it fulfills this duty, we feel mis-treated, or at least I did.

I'll leave it at this: I would rather re-watch Don't Breathe and observe its innovative techniques and breaking of traditional narrative rules than see a by-the-numbers horror movie that may not be as discomforting but simply regurgitates everything we expect from the genre. In other words, if I had the choice of enduring either a well made horror movie that doesn't make me feel good because of its content and culpable characters or one that doesn't make feel good because it's badly made, I'd choose the former. If anything, we can admire Don't Breathe for achieving what it set out to do, and then some, even though it doesn't make for pleasant viewing.