Fede Alvarez (writer and director) may not win an Oscar for screenwriting, but it’s a nice change of pace from the more common, more complicated tropes of modern-day horror. (See: precocious, disturbed children; killers who travel through TV sets; sadistic puzzle makers who “want to play a game”).
The cast is similarly small and orderly: The Heroine, The Villain, The Nice Guy, The Bad Boy. That’s it. Forget the dozen other stock horror characters. Don’t Breathe does without The Nerd, ignores the Ditzy Girl, eschews the Cute Couple.
This focus allows Don’t Breathe to add a sprinkle of nuance to its characters, rather than doubling down on comic exaggeration. Leading woman Rocky (Jane Levy) is sharp, but a little selfish. She avoids dumb decisions, but just as often misses the best ones due to a pesky, lingering self-interest. Compare her to an always-brilliant or always-ignorant horror hero, and you’ll never go back.
What’s more, Don’t Breathe doesn’t force Rocky to be sexy, like so many heroines of spooky film past. We don’t need a shower scene, ripped t-shirt or high heels chase. If Levy’s Rocky is attractive (she is), it’s number seven or eight on Don’t Breathe’s character priorities.
Stephen Lang is the other standout. Playing a character known only as “The Blind Man,” Lang is solid verbally, but masterful physically. When The Blind Man stands still, quivering with rage but intent on hearing his intruders, you’ll feel the air suck right out of the room. It’s a haunting performance.
Yes, Dylan Minnette’s Alex — the endlessly loyal, eager sidekick — is almost too pure-of-heart to be believed. He’s Samwise Gamgee without the Hobbit baby fat. And Money (Daniel Zovatto) is just plain obnoxious, all the way down to the name. But the two characters play off each other so amusingly that you won’t mind this bit of standard horror casting.
Alvarez’s efficient use of plot and character only underscore his best medium of all: space. Set mostly in a cramped Victorian, Don’t Breathe uses every square foot of The Blind Man’s home to warn viewers of coming trouble, to tease danger, to create and release tension.
Upon first entering the residence, we watch a slow, purposeful pan, the camera stopping on a tool bench here, a shard of glass there, a revolver taped to the bottom of the man’s bed. Every single shot pays off some 20 to 30 minutes later, and not always the way you might expect. This is Chekhov’s Gun done to perfection. Is all the foreshadowing too obvious, too on-the-nose? In another film, it might have been, but in the ruthlessly fastidious Don’t Breathe, it feels just right.
The movie’s neat and tidy tension slackens a bit in the final third. Things get a bit chatty, a tad too explanatory. We’re told to sit down and listen to character motivations, to pay attention while we find out What’s Really Going On. Unfortunately, all the dialogue robs the film of its best assets: silence, suspense and dread.
And then briefly, we get a gross-out scene, a moment of unrestrained villainy to remind us Just How Evil our antagonist is. It didn’t work for me. I don’t mind weird so long as it makes the villain more interesting (see Silence of the Lambs). But in Don’t Breathe, The Blind Man’s worst antics will turn you against him for good. I’d been having more fun wondering if I should root for him or against him — another trick the movie performs, at least for the first hour.
Still, the movie spends most of its time on the edge of the knife, achieving a near-impossible equilibrium. Even if Don’t Breathe falls from its perch, I’ll remember the film most for how exquisitely it maintained that balance.