Summer movie season still lingers on but, at this point, going to the movies is like going to a picnic a few hours too late. Everybody you might want to hang out with has already left and all that remains are weird looking strangers and lukewarm potato salad. Walk into any theater right now and you’ll get your fair share of lukewarm potato salad in the form of instantly forgettable misfires like “War Dogs” and “Ben-Hur.”
But some of those weird looking strangers are worth getting to know. “Don’t Breathe” happens to be one of those unfamiliar weirdos that is neither a sequel, a reboot or a superhero movie. It’s also, quite possibly, one of the better films playing in theaters right now.
Taking a cue from the moody lyricism of last year’s “It Follows,” “Don’t Breathe” opens with a very slow, very purposeful crane shot of a figure trundling down a blighted avenue in an abandoned Detroit neighborhood. As the camera gradually gets closer, we realize this figure is an old man who is dragging the unconscious (possibly lifeless?) body of one-time Emma Stone simulacrum Jane Levy. With the hopeless tone set, “Don’t Breathe” quickly introduces us to its trio of “good guy” burglars: Money (Daniel Zovatto) a grating, white boy gangbanger the film almost immediately kills off; Rocky (Levy), Money’s girlfriend and Alex (Dylan Minette), Rocky’s neurotic companion.
Yet as quickly as these characters backstories and motivations are introduced, “Don’t Breathe” wastes even less time in getting them inside the home of their target: a reclusive blind man (accomplished character actor Stephen Lang) carelessly sitting on a million dollar settlement. However, this blind man is far from helpless. In fact he’s a highly trained military veteran capable of identifying intruders by the distinctive scents of their discarded shoes (yet incapable of noticing when someone brushes up against him in his hallway). From there “Don’t Breathe” turns into a tense game of cat and mouse as Rocky and her associates attempt to rip-off the blind man and escape his heavily fortified home with their lives.
One of the more interesting elements found in “Don’t Breathe” is that for most of the film’s running time, “Don’t Breathe” refuses to take a side. Rocky may be breaking into the home of a disabled veteran but she’s also attempting to retreat from her abusive, negligent mother in an impoverished world in which breaking and entering is the only viable option. Meanwhile, Lang’s character is a ruthless, killing machine but he’s also a man broken by the accidental death of his daughter. It’s this nuanced and humanistic approach to its characters that makes “Don’t Breathe” such a unique experience, at least within the limited scope of horror movies. Unfortunately, a film like this needs a villain and an extreme third-act twist removes the subtleties from the unnamed blind man and knocks him down to the level of a garden variety boogeyman. But of course, that’s a minor gripe.
Co-written and directed by Fede Alvarez, the same auteur behind the solid 2013 “Evil Dead” remake (also starring Levy), “Don’t Breathe” manages to cover a lot of ground within its sparse 88 minute running time. The appropriately breathless pace is reflected by Pedro Luque’s anxious cinematography which closely follows the burglars through Lang’s house. A standout moment occurs early on in one single shot as Rocky and crew make their way through the home’s various obstacles, never seeing the dangers the audience is privy to, such as the enormous handgun taped beneath Lang’s bed. Evocative, tautly executed and enjoyably dour, “Don’t Breathe” is the kind of movie that must be seen right now.
Mike Sullivan is a movie reviewer for Weekender. Movie reviews appear weekly in Weekender.
Starring: Jane Levy, Daniel Zovatto, Dylan Minnette
Director: Fede Alvarez
Weekender Rating: WWWW
Length: 88 minutes