[Originally published August 30, 2016]
A movie in 10 words: three small-time Detroit thieves rob the wrong blind guy.
That’s it. That’s all you need to know about the plot of the film. There is, of course, occasionally adept characterization. The thieves aren’t just ‘bad people’ – they’re desperate people willing to do bad things. The blind guy isn’t just ‘blind guy’ – he’s a man with a volatile past and an unstable present. The screenwriters have struck a nice balance of character here – one that cultivates a genuine understanding of these figures and their unsympathetic motivations. But, as with all cat-and-mouse films, the real draw comes from ‘the clash’ – the violent interaction between these incompatible motivations.
Thieves want money. Blind man wants to keep his money. CONFLICT. Great, we’re off to the races. That’s why I like these types of movies – they don’t have to waste your time with dialogue. We start with a brisk 10-ish minutes of dialogue, and then everyone can just shut the fuck up for a bit and let me watch a movie without being spoonfed information. Characters ‘shutting the fuck up’ is particularly important in a movie where the villain can hear Super Duper Good, and – fortunately – Don’t Breathe doesn’t try and finagle its way out of this Absolute Truth. A good cat-and-mouse story is about watching screenwriters screenwrite their protagonists into a hole, going ‘oh shit everybody, how’re we gonna get out of this pickle?’ and then coming up with genuine reasons to escape said hole. Don’t Breathe is one of these films. Contrivances are near absent, and it sticks to the rules its set up for itself. Thank you, Don’t Breathe. I am truly grateful.
IMPORTANT: these types of movies require a balance of power, and Don’t Breathe strikes one quite nicely. The motley crew can see, but they’re weak – and dumb as a baby (yeah, I said it). They’re not very good at escaping, and they don’t get much better as time goes on. Blind man is, well, blind, but he’s got fantastic hearing. 20/20. He will also beat your ass to death. He’s mean. He’s scary. He’s deranged. Played by Stephen Lang (the Bad Man from Avatar), Blind Man is the best part of the film. Watching him walk/grab/shoot/stab harkens back to an era of horror where figures like Jason Voorhees dominated the screen with muscular, unstoppable swagger. Not a single moment goes by where he doesn’t exude preternatural violence. He’s never even given a name, but Lang’s performance elevates the character to an unsettling iconic; he’ll kill you – you and your whole fucking family.
The film doesn’t find nearly as much success with plotting out the action. This bothers me. The visual advantage to a film of claustrophobic setting – the blind man’s house, in this case – is its spatial brevity. The filmmaker can quickly acquaint audiences with the space and its quirks, often dropping subtle hints about the events that might transpire later in the film. The initial sweep-through of the house is about as subtle as the iron mallet that the camera lingers on. Director (and co-writer) Fede Alvarez proved he’s not a fan of subtlety with his directorial debut, 2013’s Evil Dead remake, but this is particularly egregious. If I know something’s going to happen before it does, that’s not ‘payoff’ – that’s giving me an answer I already have. The initial pass through is more concerned with showing the viewer items than locations, and it drives me up the wall. By comparison: Hush (the best horror film of 2016), takes the viewer through each room – including important items in the shot, but focusing on the space rather than its contents. I don’t like it when movies beat me over the head with their cinematography – it’s insulting.
But this is a mild insult in a film that – otherwise – treats its viewers with respect. It’s engaging and tense. At times, it’s even horrific – particularly for those capable of childbirth. Let that be a hint as to the contents of this film, which unfurl into something larger than ‘Blind Man v. Idiot Burglars.’ It’s a movie with a little ambition – a little initiative – and I appreciate that. Don’t Breathe was well-worth the price of admission, and – if you’re looking for a tense, modern inversion on the home invasion formula – I would recommend it to fans of horror and thrillers alike.