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Don’t Breathe | Review

Secret in Their Eyes: Alvarez Conjures Tension in Home Invasion Thriller

Fede Alvarez Don't BreatheAfter unveiling his grisly and rather well received directorial debut, the 2013 remake of the Sam Raimi classic Evil Dead, Fede Alvarez tries his hand at original property with the wildly effective and equally contained home invasion thriller, Don’t Breathe. Despite a generic title which tends to conjure the ambience of direct-to-DVD fare, the simple set-up yields relentless tension and a fair share of surprising little twists developing into a ferocious face-off. Managing impressive efficiency in streamlining understated but empathetic characterizations helps immensely in ratcheting audience investment in a scenario we’ve seen before, which plays like a throwback to adult thrillers where a moral grey zone dominated the narrative. Utilizing economic woes to feather its nest, the end result is nastier and more grueling than what we’ve come to expect and without relying on sadistic cruelly or abject gruesomeness to accomplish the kind of repulsion only the truly probable can command.

Wasting away their youth while most of their peers have picked up and left, Detroit twentysomethings Rocky (Jane Levy), her scornful boyfriend Money (Daniel Zovatto), and third wheel Alex (Dylan Minnette) form a ragtag trio of burglars, breaking into homes of customers utilizing Alex’s father’s security company. While Alex is reluctantly complicit because it allows him to nurse a longstanding crush for Rocky, his friends seem intent on hitting a big payload and skipping town, something they’ve made plans to do without him. When Money suggests hitting the home of a blind veteran (Stephen Lang), a man who received a fortune after a fatal car accident claimed the life of his only daughter, Alex gets cold feet. When his friends decide to make a move without his help, Alex tags along at the last minute, but neither of them expects the greeting they receive.

Alvarez captures a unique cross section of dire economic straits, a gone-to-seed Detroit where humans exist as if the rest of their capitalistic society has abandoned them. In many ways, Alvarez succeeds with nailing the portraiture of this financially bedeviled region much better than Ryan Gosling’s fantastical dark fairy tale, Lost River (2014), channeling instead the lurking greed of Wes Craven’s The People Under the Stairs (1992), another film focused on desperate youth attempting to reclaim agency by preying on those graced by privilege. Alvarez and co-writer Rodo Sayagues play with expectations of saintliness, the miscreants daring to rob none other than a blinded war veteran, a man who is also exceptionally well preserved considering his condition. A milky eyed Stephen Lang is superb here, a man for whom our automatic implicit sympathy quickly dissipates once several secrets are revealed, which are perniciously macabre.

Even with a breakneck, efficient narrative, Don’t Breathe asserts believability as well as an effective composite of desperate twentysomethings and their motivations. Alvarez leaves most of the heavy lifting to Jane Levy, whose likeable Rocky is an interesting reversal of woman-in-peril clichés. If together Levy and Dylan Minnette seem a bit too rosy-cheeked for young adults well into moral stagnation, such minor details are quickly usurped by the intense claustrophobic standoff, with Lang leveling the visual playing field (not unlike a classic move from the blind Audrey Hepburn in 1967’s Wait Until Dark). But much of the film’s expertly hewn success is due to the significant sound/ production design (Naaman Marshall, who was responsible for the similarly set The Visit from M. Night Shyamalan), while DP Pedro Luque (the Uruguayan cinematographer who lensed the original single shot thriller Silent House, 2010) roves restlessly through the dense labyrinth of a dismal trap house.

Those who appreciate the nearly extinct art of the scare should revel in Alvarez’s inventive and satisfying sophomore film, as Don’t Breathe is twisted, intense, and defies expectations. If you’ve been waiting for a thriller to make you squirm, it’s this.

★★★½/☆☆☆☆☆

Los Angeles based Nicholas Bell is IONCINEMA.com's Chief Film Critic and covers film festivals such as Sundance, Berlin, Cannes and TIFF. He is part of the critic groups on Rotten Tomatoes, The Los Angeles Film Critics Association (LAFCA), FIPRESCI, the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS) and GALECA. His top 3 for 2023: The Beast (Bonello) Poor Things (Lanthimos), Master Gardener (Schrader). He was a jury member at the 2019 Cleveland International Film Festival.

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