The most disappointing element of Don’t Breathe isn’t just that it’s a great first half followed by an absolutely banal second half. The most disappointing thing about Don’t Breathe is that said second half reverts back to the same mindless gross-outs and logic leaps that lived in director/co-writer Fede Alvarez’s 2013 film Evil Dead, although in any case it also finds Alvarez working harder with much less elements than before and for the most part succeeding. It’s also clear producers Sam Raimi and Robert Tapert saw Alvarez doing something right to keep him hanging around and I mostly trust their judgment, but nevertheless Don’t Breathe feels like the… least of all the horror wide releases of this past summer. That’s still room for a decent movie.
Alvarez and Rodo Sayagues’ screenplay hastes no time on introducing us immediately to the Detroit-based burglary trio of Rocky (Jane Levy, returning from Evil Dead and just as well since she was the only good performance in it), her boyfriend Money (Daniel Zovatto), and the source of their marks, Alex (Dylan Minnette). The three of them together pick their marks based on the database of the security system run by Alex’s father and Money has a fence to sell all the goods to. Money finds a home with a potential score of $300,000 in cash and Rocky is absolutely eager to do the job, wanting to take her sister (Emma Bercovici) out of Detroit from the hands of their callous mother (Katia Bokor). Alex on the other hand, who always has the potential punishments in the back of his mind, is finding less and less incentive to do the job: starting with the idea of breaking their rule of stealing cash, followed by discovering that the old vet they are victimizing is in fact a blind man (Stephen Lang), and having the final straw be when Money actually brings a gun on the job.
Alex turns out to be right to be worried, for the moment Money uses the gun, the blind man wakes up and the three of them discover that he’s very capable of dispatching them swiftly, aided visually by the fact of Stephen Lang already being a scary looking sexagenarian of very ripped muscular quality and a rough voice. I’m sure Don’t Breathe was probably banking on everybody who saw this movie seeing Avatar at least once and being familiar with Lang as an ass-kicking oldtimer. Obviously, his lack of sight means that the trio have to be very careful to avoid him knowing of their presence, because if he gets his hands on them, they will almost certainly be dead within minutes.
Keep in mind that Don’t Breathe is only 88 minutes including credits. I didn’t exactly keep myself a stopwatch myself but no time is wasted by the movie to establish all that information AND MORE very early on (I want to say it’s the 20 minute mark when the blind man wakes up in his home), it’s all very swift and speedy groundwork to make the home invasion thriller aspect the meat of the story. It breaks “show, don’t tell” a little bit in its dialogue, but it’s a movie that knows how to try to be efficient with its script and that’s a hell of a thing for a brisk August horror movie. It even takes care to some snappy caper-esque editing to establish their opening break-in and a smooth long take when the trio breaks into the Blind Man’s home to establish both the geometry of the house and where certain elements of interest are located at the time of their entry. It’s obviously nowhere near the level of Renoir, but I really couldn’t help thinking about The Rules of the Game when that shot was rolling.
Once the blind man is awake, the threat level steadily rises up and we get the characters doing some very interesting things to avoid being attacked by him or alerting him to their presence and that’s where Don’t Breathe becomes its most interesting. It’s essentially a deadly version of Marco Polo, the characters trying to cover their tracks and make up for Money’s mistakes. There’s a second long take that’s essentially a dance of movement avoiding each other in the narrowest of hallways between Minnette and Lang and it is the most “hold your breath” moment in the movie for me, as well as serving another narrative point (every room the Blind Man enters is being re-secured and they just happen to be the rooms Alex hides in from him each time). For the first 45 minutes Don’t Breathe is doing well to work as a simple home invasion with extra spatial awareness. It’s not exactly perfect – The Blind Man’s dog is wayyy too cuddly and tail-waggingly happy save for close-ups to be frightening (every time I saw him, I thought “who’s a good boy?”, I shit you not). Zovatto plays an insufferable prick with lines that I’m not sure are meant to be self-aware (“That’s my bitch in there. Of course I care.”) and I get the feeling that’s his character, but it’s not a good feeling to have for somebody you don’t want to die.
Minnette is fine without being very impressionable as a performance, while Levy is just a little bit better since she has more moments to be freaked-out and scared but it’s nowhere near as demanding a performance as she had in Evil Dead. Lang is the clear stand-out, doing very well to play an angry man trying to get a sense of the world around him while letting his menacing and imposing physical stature establish him as the boogeyman of the film even when the Blind Man sounds desperate and confused. All around, the pieces of Don’t Breathe click as best as they can and make a fine and functional thriller.
And then it shoots itself in the foot.
Wait, that’s not true. It shot itself in the foot at the beginning with a very poor choice of spoilertastic opening shot, but besides there’s two things that make the second half of Don’t Breathe suddenly a tepid affair. The first is that the moment that the Blind Man absolutely knows everybody who is in the house, the script doesn’t know what to do except allow the Blind Man to be able to chase them relentlessly with a gun. It’s no longer as inventive as it was at the start, it’s just a home-invasion-turned-slasher. It even gives the Blind Man a hefty amount of plot leaps so he can escape handcuffs quickly, be aware of a character’s location constantly, and even walk around in the daylight knowing exactly where in the outdoors to catch his prey. It is a barrel of contrivances to turn its villain into an unstoppable superman.
The second are its twists. Oooh how I hate twists that ruin good horror movies (hello, High Tension). The first reveal of what the Blind Man has hidden in his basement is pretty much just an element to make him less sympathetic (which is probably ideal since I can see how it’s hard to root for burglars) and I can understand it’s existence if not really be happy with it, since the Blind Man is scary enough. But in the third act, where the Blind Man has a monologue explaining his motivations and intentions for Rocky, it’s all right back to the shock value grossness Alvarez fell into for Evil Dead and it’s really a damn shame. There’s also some very twisted attempts at moral commentary (amongst the Blind Man’s claims are him saying that he’s capable of anything because there is no god and that he’s not a rapist, despite the actions we see him preparing to do constituting rape… it’s a very strange rantful sequence).
Watching Don’t Breathe is essentially watching a great movie slowly devolve itself into something worse and worse than what we were promised. We don’t have much longer of the movie to go through after those reveals, but it doesn’t really try to elevate itself back and that’s an unfortunate shame. So much of it is well-made that I would probably like to give it a pass, but I feel resentful that Alvarez probably gave up halfway through this feature.