Here’s to hoping a travel-size oxygen tank is within a college student’s budget.
In the revamped “Evil Dead,” director Fede Álvarez wanted to use all the chaos spewing on-screen to drive up the demand for Ibuprofen. The Uruguayan filmmaker continues to play doctor—the respiratory kind, in particular—for the audiences in this taut, ferocious and occasionally gross affair. The main story centers around three young burglars underestimating the craftiness of their exceedingly wealthy and sightless prey.
Through the many shots of Detroit’s battered neighborhoods, “Don’t Breathe” is the second, and arguably major, genre film to render poverty as the characters’ source of distress after “The Conjuring 2.” Financial scarcity, in itself, is scarier and lingers around longer than any apparition, which makes it heartbreaking to see Rocky (Jane Levy), Alex (Dylan Minnette) and Money (Daniel Zovatto) following the call of money to save her daughter, leave town or raise street cred, respectively.
However, since the vision scribes Álvarez and Rodo Sayagues seemingly have for the project is “tension first and overall,” the sympathy is short-lived. There’s an apparent eagerness to arrive at The Blind Man (Stephen Lang)’s house that makes the rapport-building moments inconsequential or, at the least, affecting but on a minuscule level. Snippets of additional characterization, like the trailer-only scene where a bruised Alex calls his father, could have reversed this; it would also give more cause to hope the trio—although unrighteous—make it out rather than rejoice at their imminent punishment.
And yet, similar to “Evil Dead,” the painful part is the reason to see “Don’t Breathe.” Giving in to the film’s call for a bit of masochism is easy, because Álvarez’s relentless style leaves no room for respite and for second thoughts. The reliance on suspense and new scenarios rather than gore or hellish imagery to entrap viewers demonstrates the ringmaster’s commendable adaptability and consistent gusto. These two things are also picked up by cinematographer Pedro Luque, who gracefully moves the camera, in one take, from room to room, or fixates on the angle that would muster the most discomfort.
Recently, showings of high-profile releases at AMC would feature a crew member from the film thanking viewers for seeing their work in theaters, using phrases to the effect of “where (name of movie) should be seen.” Cliché be damned, but this is true for “Don’t Breathe.” Audio work in the film is impeccable, with every environmental sound—even the most minor ones—accentuated to illustrate how The Blind Man hunts. Even Roque Baños’ “score” joins in on the fun: It prides simplicity and at times resembles an amalgam of deep booms, metallic scrapes and ear-searing scratches. And when nothing is heard, the composer single-handedly proves that silence can be deafening.
With such intense effort put into designing the fun house, the performers become secondary, even though two of them, Levy and Lang, turn in top-notch performances. Despite Levy re-employing those potent, anguished expressions and the determined aura that made her remarkable in “Evil Dead,” Lang has out-acted her here. Aside from an imposing physique, the stage veteran gives his character a palpable, borderline-frightening calculatedness through a predatory gait, huffs, grumbles, screams and approximately 13 lines of dialogue.
He’s also the reason “Don’t Breathe” is the proper choice to end the summer movie season. That, and how every screening needs to provide a complementary oxygen tank.
Jane Levy (Rocky), Dylan Minnette (Alex), Daniel Zovatto (Money), Stephen Lang (The Blind Man)
Directed by: Fede Álvarez (“Evil Dead”)
Written by: Fede Álvarez, Rodo Sayagues (“Evil Dead”)
Music by: Roque Baños (“The Machinist”)
Cinematography by: Pedro Luque (“The Silent House (La casa muda)”)
88 min., R
Release date: Aug. 26
8.5 out of 10.