"Don't Breathe" Is A Stupid, Ugly Mess

Writer-director Fede Alvarez made his feature length debut back in 2013 with a redo of Sam Raimi’s 1981 micro-budget horror masterpiece “The Evil Dead.” Alvarez’s version (produced by Raimi himself) came off as a slack rehash with heaps of gore and little else, with the original’s do-it-yourself charm nowhere in sight. Moreover, the original had already been remade brilliantly. 1987’s “Evil Dead II” proved a chef d’oeuvre in repurposing old material, rendering any future takes creatively worthless. Twenty-first century horror fans responded to Alvarez’s remake in kind. It was a hit – the kind that normally guarantees a sequel – but response was so tepid that Raimi up and returned to his original storyline (with star Bruce Campbell) for Starz’s “Ash vs Evil Dead.”

Still under Raimi’s wing, Alvarez has necessarily gone in a different direction with his second feature. “Don’t Breathe” is an original story – never mind that it borrows liberally from David Fincher’s “Panic Room” and Adam Wingard’s “You’re Next” – that pits three thieves against a blind man who turns out to be a ruthless killer. Savor that logline. It’s as good as things get.

“Evil Dead” star Jane Levy leads as Rocky, a destitute twenty-something desperate to make a better life for her young sister. Rocky and co-horts Alex (Dylan Minnette, “Goosebumps”) and Money (Daniel Zovatto, “It Follows”), each characterized ever so briefly, begin the film as burglars but quickly graduate to armed robbery. Alex is the reluctant thief among the group, Money the loudmouthed miscreant. Their big mark is an unsighted shut-in (Stephen Lang, “Avatar”) who lives in an otherwise abandoned Detroit slum. A car accident that took his daughter’s life has left the man with a settlement of at least $300,000, a sum that he inexplicably keeps in a safe inside his run-down home. Our three leads break in and much bloodletting ensues.

What might have made for an agreeably silly slasher pic instead devolves into a grim, feckless trip into nothingness where characters murder with the conviction of a lunch lady turning on a toaster oven and one bloviates about not being rapist as he’s raping someone. There’s no subtext to any of this – there’s barely any text – and worst of all, none of it is remotely scary. Sure, there are loud noises aplenty, like a vibrating cell phone that’s as loud as a rocket launch. But the movie is more in the vein of Rob Zombie’s cavalcade of visually provocative, narratively inert genre pics, with Alvarez’s penchant for dopey stylistic choices (the way he uses shallow focus on cell phone screens is a prime offender) underlining his dearth of storytelling ideas.

At the heart of this is an unwillingness (or inability) to create suspense. No, all of Alvarez’s cat-and-mouse sequences are instead designed to create the illusion of suspense. When Orson Welles opened 1958 thriller “Touch Of Evil” with a three-minute, thirty-second single-camera shot, it wasn’t just a stylistic choice. Its purpose was to impart crucial information to the audience, filling us in on things the characters weren’t privy to, building to a crescendo of violence. Alvarez uses the same kind of uninterrupted shot in “Don’t Breathe” to… show us rooms of a house. This is not part of some grand scheme to familiarize us with its geography, since almost none of the movie takes place in any of these rooms. The sequence is just there, as unconcerned with tension as the film is with its own title.

Don’t breathe? Rocky, Alex, and Money didn’t get the memo. The characters spend much of the movie blithely unworried about being heard. There’s no sense that this terrifying blind man might have a heightened sense of hearing or smell (he doesn’t), only that he’s essentially the “Jurassic Park” version of a T-Rex. Don’t move and he can’t sense you. There has never been a movie with less understanding of actual blindness or its effects on the brain.

Not even the big night vision sequence gets this right. We’re meant to be immersed in blackness along with Rocky and company, where this merciless blind man is finally on equal footing with his predators (or are they his prey?). But like in every other corner of the film, everything is in plain sight. A sequence that should consist mostly of darkness is shot in night vision, allowing us to see everything perfectly clearly as it unfolds, further evidencing that Alvarez has no concept of what to show us and what not to show us. It is the anti-suspense.

None of this is to say that the film isn’t intermittently handsome. Alvarez (or his cinematographer) has a knack for compelling shots. There’s even a pretty great sequence featuring Rocky locked in a car with a slobbering Rottweiler. No, it’s in the stringing together of these shots into something coherent that everything goes to hell. Beyond the intriguing visuals, the film suffocates viewers with its sound mix and mind-bendingly stupid (or, alternatively, tasteless) story developments that not even the most gullible “Friday The 13th” victim would enact. And since there are no likable characters, our only rooting interest is in the movie ending ASAP.

“Don’t Breathe” is dumb and not scary, a lethal combination for a movie that purports to be smart and terrifying. Moreover it’s cruel to no end, ripping a particularly disgusting page from the playbook of last year’s much better “The Gift.” Fede Alvarez has proven once again that he knows how to make a movie but has no idea how to tell a coherent story. And he can’t even do the former without heavily invoking infinitely better, more accomplished filmmakers. We just might be in the midst of a new golden age for horror (see: “The Guest,” “Green Room”). If Fede Alvarez wants to be a part of it, he’ll need to go back to the drawing board. Again.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★ out of ★★★★★ (Very Bad)

Release Date: August 26, 2016
Studio: Screen Gems (Sony), Ghost House Pictures
Director: Fede Alvarez
Screenwriter: Fede Alvarez, Rodo Sayagues
Starring: Jane Levy, Dylan Minnette, Daniel Zovatto, Stephen Lang
MPAA Rating: R (for terror, violence, disturbing content, and language including sexual references)