Friday, August 26, 2016

Review: Don't Breathe (2016)

Don't Breathe (2016)

Rated R for terror, violence, disturbing content, and language including sexual references

Score: 4 out of 5

Don't Breathe is probably the most welcome surprise I've had at the movies this year. It's a mainstream, Hollywood horror film that's not about ghosts or demons, and one that hits the same peaks as The Witch and Green Room earlier this year. It's easily one of the best films of the summer, blowing most of the overblown, SFX-driven, franchise-baiting blockbusters of the last few months right out of the sea. It's a dark and lurid story about crooks in way over their heads, one that gets more skin-crawlingly uncomfortable with each new plot turn. And while I went into The Witch and Green Room with high expectations, this is one that flew under my radar, with a trailer that looked good, but not great. It's an outstanding horror film that proves that writer/director Fede Alvarez, maker of the Evil Dead remake from 2013, isn't a one-trick pony, and an absolute must-see for horror fans who can handle some messed-up subject matter.

The plot is reminiscent of the 1991 Wes Craven film The People Under the Stairs, in that it's a "home invasion" film in reverse with the intruders as the protagonists. Said protagonists are Rocky (Jane Levy), Alex (Dylan Minnette), and Money (Daniel Zovatto), a trio of burglars in Detroit. Rocky is a young single mother living with her trailer-trash mom and her neo-Nazi stepfather, looking to escape her dead-end life and move to California with her boyfriend Money and her daughter. Alex, meanwhile, is the rich son of the owner of a home security company, one who uses his knowledge of security systems and access to Dad's gadgets to break into the houses that his father's company protects. One day, the three of them are tipped off about a man living in the middle of one of the city's most decrepit neighborhoods, sitting on hundreds of thousands of dollars that he won in a settlement after his daughter was run down by a rich girl in a hit-and-run. What's more, this man was blinded due to combat injuries in the first Gulf War, so to all appearances, he looks like an easy mark. When the trio sets out to burglarize the blind man's place, however, they find out the hard way that they might as well have tried to rob Daredevil, because the guy is not only still in excellent shape and still has his combat training, he has learned to compensate for his lack of eyesight by honing his hearing and other senses. What's more, his money is hardly the only secret he's keeping, and he'll go to great lengths to make sure that it stays secret.

Even a downright terrible crowd at the theater (running commentary, cell phones, everything except a baby) couldn't thin out the tension that this film produced. Alvarez makes excellent use of Detroit's notorious decrepitude in the first act to build a feeling of decay and death (it seems that It Follows is already leaving its mark on the horror genre in one respect), with the blind man's home standing alone as an island amidst the crumbling, empty neighborhood around him. When Rocky, Alex, and Money head out for their score, it's clear that they are alone, and that nobody can save them. It's no different inside the home, a maze of claustrophobic, poorly-lit corridors where the lights haven't been kept on because the owner and sole occupant, unable to see, doesn't need them. The film takes its time establishing the layout of the house, which serves to both build up suspense as we wait for trouble to rear its head, and leave all manner of Chekhov's guns -- the basement latch, the hammer, the revolver under the bed -- loaded for Alvarez to pull the trigger later. Every creak in the floorboards, everything that's knocked over by accident, is either a sign that the home's owner is coming, or something that might alert him. And when he does show up, he doesn't mess around. It's like a movie version of one of the modern, new-wave indie horror games like Outlast and Amnesia, where the The darkened basement scene shown in the trailers wears the influence of The Silence of the Lambs on its sleeve, and almost manages to match it in terms of nail-biting tension. This guy is tough, badass, and a highly threatening villain, especially once we learn more about him. I won't spoil anything except to say that, the more we find out about the blind man, the more we realize that the protagonists, despite being criminals, are absolute saints compared to him. The trailers were good about not giving away just how twisted this movie gets as it progresses, in both some of the plot details and some of the things happening on screen (I'll never look at a turkey baster the same way again). The MPAA's content descriptor of "disturbing content" merely scratches the surface of the dark and icky places the story goes. Yikes. Did it feel like it was there just to shock? Yeah, but it worked.

The main characters have little dialogue for much of the film, which makes sense given the situation they're in (any noise can be fatal), leaving them to do most of their acting through facial expressions and body language. In that, Jane Levy and Dylan Minnette both do good work. Levy, reunited with Alvarez after the Evil Dead remake, plays a similarly troubled character here, a crook with a heart of gold who's turned to crime to escape her situation, while Minnette's character is doing what he does because he has a crush on Rocky and is trying to impress her, as evidenced when he tries to back out of the burglary after deciding that robbing an old blind man isn't worth it, only going back because he's concerned for her safety. The real star of the show here, however, is Stephen Lang as the villain, credited only as the Blind Man. This guy is great at playing tough guys, and here, he combines that intensity with situational villainy as he schemes to get these kids the hell out of his house. There's actually a human being underneath his badass exterior, as we see when his motivations are laid out, but humanizing him only makes him that much more twisted as we realize why he's doing what he's doing. A huge part of why this film works comes down to Lang being absolutely terrifying. If there's one real problem here, it's that the ending drags on for a bit too long as we are given multiple false endings. I liked the first one, but after that, it started to get ridiculous as to how many times the Blind Man would come back. I did like the bittersweet note that it finally went out on, but about five minutes could've been trimmed from the third act before then, with the best shots from each false ending (all of which were technically well done) consolidated into a single finale.

The Bottom Line:

The horror genre seems to have been the only bright spot at the movies this year, and this doesn't change that. If you like scary movies, this is definitely one that will knock the breath right out of you. (I'm sorry, I couldn't resist.)

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