‘Don’t Breathe’ Review: Alvarez meets Hitchcock in this reverse home invasion thriller.
By Thanh Nguyen
Director Fede Alvarez takes the moral high ground towards his refreshing approach on the home invasion genre by going against the simple depiction of “good guys versus bad guys” in Don’t Breathe. Rather than show an unfathomable force of evil wreaking havoc on unsuspecting victims, like the horrendously archetypal villain in “Hush” for instance, Alvarez aims to explore why people do bad things with more complex and sympathetic characters whose actions are driven by their own social circumstances.
The film follows three friends who like to rob wealthy homeowners, shifting the usual perspective from the victims of a break-in to the invaders themselves. After learning about a man who received a large settlement from his daughter’s death in a hit-and-run, they decide to break into his home to get a hold of his money. Rocky, the scrappy and brooding female member of the trio, serves as the driving impetus of the plot with her desperate need to go through with the risky job in order to be able to remove her younger sister out of the hands of their abusive mother and flee the city together. Without dwelling too long into her rather sappy backstory, Alvarez swiftly sets up the plot before quickly diving into the meat of the film.
Don’t Breathe continues to play with the notion that things are not what they seem by challenging our perception of who the supposed victim is in the situation. Upon arriving at their target’s home, the three friends discover that he is blind. When Alex, a boy harbouring feelings for Rocky, questions their decision to rob a blind man, their friend Money dismisses him by saying that “just because he’s blind, doesn’t mean he’s a saint”. Indeed, our initial compassion for a lonely, blind man suffering from a personal tragedy starts to change once the roles become reversed and the three are embroiled in a cat-and-mouse hunt that sees them fighting for their lives. But like the portrayal of many sinister characters in Hitchcock’s films, Don’t Breathe creates a sense of moral ambiguity by oscillating between demonizing and humanizing its villain. The Blind Man’s brutal acts of violence are balanced with moments where is wracked with guilt and inner torment over his actions. Part of the film’s intrigue is that we become caught in this moral guessing game of “is he or isn’t he” really a bad guy. Like Rocky, The Blind Man is another example of a character whose actions have been shaped by the sense of injustice in their lives.
Alvarez’s direction can be further likened to the master of suspense himself in the way that he allows the audience to see things ahead of his characters. Often the camera acts like a wandering eye – floating from one room to another, traversing in and out of nooks and crannies before casting its disembodied gaze onto key objects and elements that exists unbeknownst to the characters. This visual foreshadowing becomes the active ingredient to our mounting apprehension as we anxiously await for the moment when these things will figure into the film. Adding to the intensity of our viewing experience is the the film’s powerful use of silence. Alvarez revels in moments devoid of sound, opting out of overbearing scores that cue in the terror for a quiet and atmospheric soundscape fraught with nail-biting tension and a heavy sense of dread that engulfs the viewer into a state of paralyzing terror.
Unfortunately, Don’t Breathe veers towards the realm of pulp and sensationalism in its second half, undermining its subtle tone with a gimmicky twist that seems to be added for the sake of shock value. The film’s gripping first half also starts to lose a hold on us once a crazy canine is thrown into the cat-and-mouse mix, and things inevitably venture into Cujo territory. The whole interaction between a human and a dog ends up playing out like a duller version of the previous seen events that makes the film feel drawn out, leaving us hoping for something more exciting.
Despite its few shortcomings, Don’t Breathe is a must-see for those who love a good thriller. Although the film serves mainly to entertain, there is still a surprising amount of thought and depth to this overall frightening and intense, cinematic joyride. Even if you don’t care for the characters very much, you still end up holding your breaths along with them.