Fede Alvarez is proving to be one mean cinematic son of a bitch. His Evil Dead remake is relentlessly nihilistic; soaked in karo syrup and tossing dismembered limbs about willy nilly, it may not be the “most terrifying film you will ever experience” (or whatever the fuck), but it certainly was a huff of much needed noxious insanity at a time when American studio horror was starting to go soft. His latest, Don’t Breathe, is just as angry and brutal, trading in blunt force ferocity instead of over the top gore and battering the audience into submission with the meaty fists of Stephen Lang, who proves to be more terrifying than any Deadite could ever hope. This is Alvarez’s Wes Craven movie; a motion picture that feels like it came from the contaminated corners of an artistic mind that’s unconcerned with playing nice. It’s The People Under the Stairs for a new set of film fans who saw our government bail out banks while letting mid-level metropolises crumble; Iraq veterans becoming outcasts amongst the rubble of Americana.
Our protagonists are far from heroes – a trio of teenage Detroit B&E experts, Rocky (Jane Levy), Money (Daniel Zovatto) and Alex (Dylan Minnette) make their living raiding houses and stealing whatever goods they can get their hands on. They don’t do cash – larger sums carry longer jail penalties – even though they always seem to get screwed on street markup for the Rolexes and designer pumps they stuff into their duffle bags. However, their latest score looks to be their last, promising a hefty six-figure payout. Their target: a visually impaired trouper (Lang) whose daughter was killed in a hit-and-run accident. The perpetrator’s wealthy family didn’t want their daughter to do any prison time, so instead of taking the case to court, they settled with the blind man for an undisclosed sum of hush money that he now supposedly keeps in his dilapidated house on the far end of Eight Mile Road. All these kids gotta do is get in, get out, and high tail it to California, where the proverbial “better life” awaits.
If it were that easy, there wouldn’t be a movie, and Alvarez wisely keeps the action grounded in a grubby reality, his camera prowling the corridors and air ducts of the blind man’s home with Fincher-eqsue aplomb (the most obvious visual reference point is Panic Room, as there is at least one ostentatious, digitally-aided long take). Lang plays the combat-hardened crazy as a warrior with slightly heightened senses, his character never quite tipping into Matt Murdock territory except for one technically impressive night vision sequence, during which he knocks out all of the lights and hunts the intruders in complete darkness. Alvarez turns the grey level way up and plays with the chromatic schematics of paramilitary pictures like Sicario, creating a stalk and slash stretch that is incredibly tense and visceral. The weapons of choice are no longer chainsaws or machetes, but rather guns and Lang’s substantial paws – a reflection of both the urban arena in which the action takes place and our antagonist’s soldierly backstory.
Like Craven before him, Alvarez seems interested in creating slight subtext through meager character development. While it’s difficult to side with a gang of criminals who are robbing a man who lost his sight serving his country, Alvarez and his co-writer Rodo Sayagues are somewhat aware of the economic hardships that drove these kids to a life of petty larceny. Rocky yearns to take her cute moppet of a sister away from their abusive trailer trash mother and her scuzzy boyfriend. Fuzzier are the motives of Money and Alex, both of whom are underdeveloped. Alex especially seems like a fish out of water, providing alarm codes from his dad’s installation company in order to gain access to their targets’ homes, all in an effort to impress the girl he pines for. Yet once you link the kids’ financial status with the boiling anger that brews in the blind man’s belly (“Rich girls don’t go to prison…” he grumbles), the underlying theme becomes clear. Nowhere near as interesting as Fool (Brandon Quintin Adams) from People Under the Stairs (not to mention progressive – why can’t we have a young black kid cast as our star twenty-five years later?), you can still sense Alvarez striving to inject some semblance of depth into an otherwise shallow stylistic exercise.
A revolting third act reveal revolving around Lang’s character undermines all of the sympathies Don’t Breathe has built and exposes just how unpleasant Alvarez is prepared to be. There was some controversy surrounding reactions to his Evil Dead remake when it first premiered at SXSW, as the infamous tree rape sequence (mostly replicated from Sam Raimi’s original) was greeted with misguided cheers from miscreants. Don’t Breathe contains a similar instance of sexual violence that climaxes with a gut churning act that is meant to elicit similar whooping and hollering. You can’t completely pin these reactions on Alvarez, as he is obviously only responsible for his art, not others’ responses to it. Unfortunately, the intent behind the scene (not to mention the fact that it is consistent with an emerging pattern within his filmography) is difficult to parse. It may be shock for shock’s sake – the signifier of a shameless exploitation filmmaker who wants to play to the basest instincts of certain crowds. Regardless, Don’t Breathe is a brash, lean, and aesthetically remarkable thriller that’s sure to please horror aficionados and possibly win over those who weren’t as keen on his redux as others.