These days, it’s somewhat rare for a new horror film not to have a supernatural edge. It’s even rarer for one of such movies to be good.
But Don’t Breathe is not your typical horror film, even if it does share some of the narrative markings. The movie is a classic “final girl” horror film that reunites Evil Dead (2013) director Fede Alvarez with its star, Jane Levy.
Levy plays Rocky, a young girl trying to save enough money to move from Detroit to Los Angeles with her little sister. She makes money by robbing houses with her two friends, Money (Daniel Zovatto) and Alex (Dylan Minnette). They seem to represent two different extremes concerning masculinity, and they are appropriately punished for it.
The story takes us with this trio as they attempt to rob a wealthy blind man (Stephen Lang) in a deserted neighborhood. However, as their plan goes awry, they find themselves in a situation where they have to use their advantage of sight over the aged army veteran’s familiarity with his home. The end result isn’t necessarily a surprise, but the journey to get there is quite a thrill.
Another aspect that differentiates Don’t Breathe from other horror films is the active choices the characters make. In many horror stories, the protagonists are not actively seeking terror; it just finds them. But here, the characters have a clear motivation for getting into a deadly situation that would otherwise make them the antagonist. This complicates our perception of the characters and ultimately makes their growth and experiences all the more dynamic.
Of course, there are more surrounding circumstances that make the blind man villainous than just defending his home. He is not played for sympathy, and the audience is given reason to root for the invaders.
However, this flipping of the ‘home invasion’ script does not go without scrutiny. One conflicted area surrounds the idea of ‘othering’ disability. This is a movie made by people who are not blind, about blind people, for the sake of a non-blind audience. Despite the focus on audio, this is ultimately a visual film and is not readily available to those who cannot see.
What is significant about this is that the blind man’s disability is the singular narrative vehicle that keeps this film moving, and the actor playing him is not blind. It’s a reverse Daredevil that sometimes seems empowering, at times seems gross. As a non-blind individual, I’m not the one who should actually be shepherding this cause, but it’s an interesting issue I’d love to see discussed.
This creation of a visual film with audio as a narrative device is a fascinating route to explore. The sound design on Don’t Breathe is absolutely fantastic, with lots of fun surrounding diegetic and non-diegetic sound. Since smell isn’t exactly a sense the audience can use while watching a movie (and Smell-O-Vision might ruin the experience), the film focuses on sound, and that if the trio of invaders are too loud (even by breathing), there could be deadly consequences.
This relationship is made even more fascinating by the audience’s involvement. The audience plays the voyeur throughout and gets to see and hear everything. Well, everything the filmmakers decide to show. The amount of information the audience is given is a large part of what makes the movie so tense and so frightening.
Fede Alvarez shows an extreme level of control manipulating the story, and creating one of the most intense and cathartic horror films I’ve experienced in a long time. Of course, considering that he directed the Evil Dead remake, a franchise known for it’s grueling intensity, this makes sense. But the straightforward narrative and constant tension make Don’t Breathe a… breathtaking… experience, especially in a theater.
Due to the nature of the movie, however, watch it at your own risk. The film features one of the coolest sequences I’ve seen all year, but also one of the most uncomfortable (well, rivaling several of the scenes in 10 Cloverfield Lane). It goes from a fun scary to a really gross scary, and that may be too unsettling or triggering for some viewers.
Ultimately, Don’t Breathe is a horror film of a very different variety. It’s a very well-made movie, but it’s also certain to elicit many different reactions. My hope is that we will be able to have discussions about this film, some positive, some negative, and that it won’t be simply forgotten in a few years. But if it is, it is sure to scare quite a few people along the way.