Let me be clear, you probably can’t handle Don’t Breathe. Hitchcockian in concept and French New Wave in execution, the batshit bonkers new horror film from Fede Alvarez is a sanguine-stained guillotine of heinous intensity. The Uruguayan director has issued French extremity an American passport, inviting a true-to-form, heart-stopping gang bang of insane tension to inseminate the United States homeland. Consider everyone at last night’s world premiere unmistakably impregnanted by its brutal brilliance.
White knuckle past the point of bursting a blood vessel, the basic premise of Don’t Breathe flips the home invasion formula on its head, decapitates it and ravages its lifeless corpse. Dylan Minnette is Alex, the poorly adjusted son of a security firm boss, who with unsubstantiated crush Rocky (Jane Levy) and her belligerent, wanna-be-gangster boyfriend Money (Daniel Zovatto) take advantage of Alex’s father’s negligence, using the keys and codes that he barely keeps locked up to conduct small-time B&E’s around Detroit proper.
After a break-in that nets them less than they’d hoped, the amateur burglars believe they’ve stumbled across the score of a lifetime. Tired of swiping luxury goods to fence through the black market and the resulting underwhelming payoffs, Rocky learns of a lowly local sitting on a six-figure settlement. They believe a veteran paid off by a wealthy family hoping to keep their daughter out of jail following an alleged vehicular manslaughter incident keeps said settlement in cash. At home. The “benefactor”, i.e. the man they’re planning to scam, lost his daughter in the exchange. Hoping to capitalize on the tragedy, the maladjusted trio prepare to infiltrate his well-guard, eerily insular abode that lies not accidentally on the edge of town in a certifiable no man’s land. The kicker – their mark is blind, making it all the easier to pull the job off. Or so they miscalculate.
Don’t Breathe needs no more introduction, nor will revealing any of the ensuing twists and turns do anything but drain the Rottweiler-sized balls of this breathless chamber piece. Expect madness. Await insanity. Prepare to remind yourself to breathe. Alvarez unloads a turkey baster of mania and malice, once again double-dog daring his audience to look on unblinking. In Evil Dead, he pushed buttons by elevating gore levels to exploitative heights. Tongues were split. Hands were sawed off. Blood rained. Don’t Breathe retains that same level of absurd bombast but see Alvarez pivot away from the purely ultraviolet and into an echo chamber of crippling psychological stress. Ok, and ultraviolence.
Perhaps you’ve heard of blind cafés, experimental restaurants that serve their meals in complete blackness in order to elevate the remaining senses. Don’t Breathe utilizes a similar cognitive restraint, instead tamping down the soundscape once the heist begins so that every little creak is tantamount to a snapping bone, every whimper deafening. Don’t Breathe‘s sound design, a lynch pin component for any horror film, headed up here by Beau Williams and Csaba Major, is kinetic and immersive, while the magnitude of its importance cannot be understated. Soaked with the sweat of anticipation, their silences are heavy wool blankets, doubly effective in the context of a blind opponent.
Speaking of, Stephen Lang makes for a commendable adversary. His performance is one of raw physicality and militant brutality. And if anecdotal accounts from the cast are to be trusted, Lang dedicated himself to a brutish method routine, often mimicking the extreme physicality the role required. In layman’s terms, he beat the living shit out of his costars. And you can feel every punch like a cowhide belt to the rump. The man’s hands are as deadly as his small arsenal of sidearms and he’s not afraid to justifiably administer them. The narrative brilliance of the situation is that you’re actually sympathetically aligned with him moreso than you are with our would-be protagonists, Lang’s blind man being a handicapped victim of larsony and all.
As the deadly Detroit lock-in unfolds, giving way to inimitable levels of visceral dread – perhaps the finest of which involves a total blackout captured masterfully through night vision – the pivots come fast and unpredictably. Levy is predictably superb, reminding us why we thought she would be a bigger star than she is after her relative debut in Evil Dead, confidently constructing a complex final girl, motivated more by necessity than greed, complicated by shades of doubt and resilience. She may not have to combat an army of PO’ed deadites but the plight she faces in Don’t Breathe is arguably worse than death and will be more than enough to make your pupils dilate in stunned horror.
CONCLUSION: Riveting, horrifying and unwaveringly f*cked up, ‘Don’t Breathe’ is one of the most breathless, relentlessly intense horror movies to ever open in the American territories. Not unlike ‘Martyrs’ or ‘Inside’, Fede Alvarez’s disturbing triumph of high-pitched tension and fanatical bad taste is as much an absolute must for hardcore horror fans as it is sure to horrify any and every mother on planet Earth.
*This is a reprint of our 2016 SXSW Review