Director Fede Alvarez blazed onto the horror scene in a big way with the gruesome and gritty “Evil Dead” reboot in 2013. Now he and leading lady Jane Levy are back with “Don’t Breathe,” a buzzed-about thriller that aims to turn the home invasion subgenre on its head. However, while Alvarez’s mean-spirited brand of horror is fearlessly gruesome, that doesn’t make it satisfying — or even all that scary.
Set in a dilapidated Detroit, “Don’t Breath” follows a band of three blue-collar crooks who are buying their way out of their dead-end lives one home robbery at a time. They begin by targeting gaudy mansions, where expensive electronics and diamond jewelry lie about as casually as a tissue boxes or remote controls. Their cautious leader Alex (Dylan Minnette) is insistent that they never rip off more than $10,000 of merch at any home, so they can avoid major charges should they get caught. However, the reckless Money (Daniel Zovatto) and overzealous Rocky (Levy) push the reluctant mastermind to throw caution to the wind when they hear about a retired military vet (Stephen Lang), who’s rumored to be sitting on a ton of cash in a battered old house in a ghost town of a neighborhood. When they find out he’s blind, it seems like this should be easier than taking candy from a baby. But of course, there’d be no movie if things were what they seemed.
Once the three break into the house, things turn sour fast, as it’s revealed the blind man’s other senses (smell, touch, hearing) are so enhanced that he’s basically super-powered. From rooms away, he can sniff out Money’s sneakers. He tracks the terrified twenty-somethings around his home as if he’s a mythic monster. This is a jarring shift in tone from the grounded beginning Alvarez set up, which aimed to earn audience empathy by showing the bleak Detroit decay and the parental abuse Rocky in particular is so eager to escape. But once trapped inside this locked down den, “Don’t Breathe” goes to cartoonish slasher-style tropes, where the The Blind Man is basically invincible and inexplicably capable of incredible feats. While the audience around me relished this goofiness as giddily as Alvarez’s graphic gore, I was left disappointed and bored.
As the thieves scramble around like frightened mice, there’s little logic to their escape plans, and the geography is too hazily mapped out for Alvarez to build sustained tension through proximity (as Jeremy Saulnier managed beautifully with “Green Room” and Dan Trachtenberg did with aplomb in “10 Cloverfield Lane”). Instead, the horror auteur relies heavily on gory moments of violence enhanced by slow motion, and jump scare reveals that are mostly gawking close-ups of the dead-eyed homeowner.
To be frank, I didn’t find “Don’t Breathe” scary. I gasped at the first jump scare, but the repeated use meant diminishing returns to the point of numbness. With the protagonists flailing to flee, the plot meanders. And as I wasn’t hooked by tension typical in the home invasion/trapped subgenre, the plotting just felt torturous.
To Alavarez’s credit, he makes some intriguing attempts in “Don’t Breathe.” Through the setup, he asks the audience to connect not with the victim of the home invasion, but with people who smugly rob a blind man, albeit through heavy-handed dialogue that spools out a sad tale of childhood trauma and a tiresome stereotype about tattoos being representative of a damaged soul.
Alvarez initially gives us a swift introduction to the house’s core geography with a “long take” shot (enhanced by CG camerawork) that guides us from the point of the break-in to where The Blind Man (yes, that’s how Lang is credited) sleeps, a gun under his bed. But the helmer overplays his hand with pronounced close-ups of a hammer, a skylight and other elements that will clearly prove important later on. Telegraphing these set pieces is a cheap way to make the audience feel smart, when they are basically shouting for notice of these overt elements of foreshadowing. And few of these setups even pay off, as the geography elsewhere is so poorly established.
The performances are fine. Levy is engaging whether she’s whimpering in a closet or going full-on Final Girl. Minette has made a big leap in the genre, going from the daffy antics of “Goosebumps” to the torture porn cruelty seen here. His doe-eyed stares aptly sell some of the film’s more shocking moments. Zovatto clearly revels in playing the group’s wild car, spitting insults, swaggering with vacant bravado and wielding a weapon with compelling cockiness. And Lang plays the monster ably. His hulking frame and beefy arms emanating threat whether he’s stilly sniffing the air for intruders, or barreling through a basement grasping for throats. But the inherent campiness of the premise and Alvarez’s ham-fisted execution undercuts the true terror, leaving this critic awed mostly at how praised this pic has already become.
“Don’t Breathe” is in theaters now.
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