Movie Review: Don’t Breathe (2016)

BY MARTIN

Don’t Breathe first caught my attention with a trailer that was just slightly above average.  The trailer showed some interesting ideas; 3 people break into a blind man’s home and get trapped in while he hunts them down.  So when I saw this movie was getting positive reviews, my interest grew.  Patton Oswalt pointed out on twitter a handful of horror trailers that were really good, one of which being “The Woods” which was later revealed to be the new Blair Witch reboot.  The other was this movie, and the third was Lights Out.  Personally, I haven’t seen a horror trailer as good as the teaser for the first Conjuring movie, which was just part of the clapping game scene from the movie.  There was very little of the typical trailer bullshit in it: no loud grinding noises, no epileptic flickering, and the only “jump scare” (if you can call it that) came right at the end.  The silence and unbroken shot created an atmosphere of oppressive tension, the kind you need a minute to recover from, and exactly what you want out of a good horror movie.

Don’t Breathe starts off with a forgettable premise and weak characters, spending a good 20 minutes just on the set up.  The 3 main characters break into a blind man’s house with the hope of walking away with a giant sack of money to fuel their dreams, or whatever.  The main girl is supposed to be a tragic figure, a malnourished blonde with pixie girl hair, big bags under her eyes, and an assortment of ugly and seemingly random tattoos.  Her boyfriend is along for the ride with his white boy cornrows (with the sides shaved), false-front bravado to match, and his own assortment of ugly tattoos.  The two of them remind me so much of Die Antwoord from Chappie that I’m just going to refer to them as Ninja and Yolandi from this point on.  Ninja and Yolandi dream of leaving Detroit for California and need to steal enough money to fund their flight, so they use the third member of the trio, an amateur Miles Teller impersonator who seems to be in love with Yolandi.  Third guy is the brains of the operation, stealing keys and security codes from his dad, who seems to run a home security business and made the wise decision to keep all the client backup keys and info in his house, within breaking-into range.  He also has a grab bag of knowledge about the intricacies of the security systems and the laws concerning theft, telling the other two how to fly under the radar of the police of Detroit, who I assume are too preoccupied trying to keep their city from burning to the ground to pay attention to petty home robberies.  I guess all this time we’re spending with this trio is supposed to make me sympathize with them, but it doesn’t really work.  If I were watching a different kind of movie, Ninja and Yolandi would be the kind of people who try to drag our hero into the gutter with them.  They remind me of Jessie Pinkman’s friends from Breaking Bad: shifty and duplicitous drug addicts. 

The real start of the movie is when they begin to break into the blind man’s house.  Despite the weak characters and set up, it seems the filmmakers knew what they were trying to accomplish: a slow crescendo of tension.  This is where the real strength of the movie lies.  Character and premise aren’t as important as the plot or how it unfolds.  For the most part, the movie puts you through the paces, making you work through the slow moment-by-moment journey with the characters.  Throughout the time spent in the house, I never forgot the pressing need for the characters to get the hell out of there.  This dynamic is made more interesting since they are trying to evade a blind man in his own home, and throughout the story they get betrayed by their own small noises and smells.  This is where the valuable tension from this movie comes from, these people are trapped in the middle of the room with this blind man, unable to move or even breathe until he decides to look deeper or just wander off.  The movie makes good use of what could be called their “gimmick”.  They play with darkness and silence, using each as an effective tool to ratchet up the ever-present tension.

The bulk of the movie takes place in just this one location, a small house that is locked up tighter than a thing that is really tight.  The filmmakers don’t let this go to waste either, utilizing objects and locations over and over in different combinations and sequences that almost feel like an intricate video game puzzle.  Some of it was a little telegraphed, but other times it was genuinely surprising to see something come back that we forgot about.  The different threads of the story seemed to dovetail into each other, leaving little wasted narrative space.  Stephan Lang was awesome as the blind man, a former soldier and current sadist, whose unique combination of blindness (and the heightened senses that go with it) and leftover skills from combat training makes him a compelling villain. 

I feel like there was a missed opportunity to explore questions of moral ambiguity. The way the story was told made it clear that the trio of burglars are supposed to be our heroes, but I couldn’t forget that they are still low-life criminals, victimizing a blind man in his own home.  The story goes places that declare the blind man is also a bad man, not to be sympathized with, but that doesn’t make the heroes good people.  It could have been interesting to see the filmmakers explore the question of who is in the wrong here, forcing the audience to have our alliance with the characters shifting back and forth from the trio to the blind man, but I imagine that would also be very hard to execute without sacrificing the most essential part of this movie: the horror.   All in all, I enjoyed this movie.  While not being a perfect movie, Don’t Breathe delivers just what the trailer promises: something different.  I fall in between a 3 and a 4 for this movie, but since I like seeing things I haven’t seen before, I will bump this up to a low 4 out of 5 stars.  If you don't mind a tense movie, give it a shot.  You might be pleased.