This article fully spoils Don't Breathe.
Fede Alvarez’ first feature, the remake of The Evil Dead, was a sour and ugly movie that lost all the energy and creativity of the original… and people loved it. I stood on the outside, confused, never certain what it was about that one-note movie that appealed to so many of my friends. I stand outside again with Alvarez’ new film, Don’t Breathe, a tone-deaf reversal of Wait Until Dark that plays like Rapist Zatoichi Versus The Worst Kids Ever. I hated it.
The film is set in Detroit, where a trio of poorly-cast kids engage in burglaries. Their secret is that one of the kids, who looks like the soft embodiment of middle class privilege (played by Goosebump’s Dylan Minnette), has a dad who works for a home security company so they can bypass all the alarms and have keys to all these fancy homes. Also in the crew is Rocky, played by Jane Levy, who Doughboy has a crush on and who looks like she once read a Buzzfeed list about having a hard life. See, we’re supposed to feel for her because her mom smokes and is an asshole, so she’s gonna take her kid sister and run away from home… right after they do one more score, don’t ya know. The third kid is named Money, and he has braided hair and is the kid most likely to drop into African American Vernacular English, so you know he has to die first. He’s played by Daniel Zovatto of It Follows, and he’s supposed to be the kid we definitely hate, but I ended up hating all three. They’re horrible and they’re thinly sketched and they do not, on any level, look like they would be breaking into anything besides song at the auditions for the regional dinner theater version of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.
At any rate they get this tip on a house to rob (I’m not sure why they need tips when Doughboy has the keys to every house in the area… except that the film needs to keep him likable so he couldn’t be the guy to decide on hitting this particular house), one that is owned by a vet who came into some money after his daughter got killed in a hit and run. For reasons I couldn’t figure out the kids decide that the old guy must have that money in the house, and while they usually don’t steal cash - it raises their crimes to the next level and brings jail time - for this One Last Heist they’re gonna clean the old man out.
That’s the set-up; it’s weak and thin and narratively tortured already. It also takes too long to get going, even if it only takes twenty minutes (it may even take less). The first act of the film is a slog largely because these characters are so deeply uninteresting. They’re not even particularly unlikable, they’re just boring and empty and blank. That wouldn’t be a problem if the structure of Don’t Breathe was one that encouraged us to root for the blind guy, but it becomes apparent that isn’t the case - we are actually supposed to care about these kids.
Stephen Lang plays Rapist Zatoichi, but it’s not clear up front that he’s a rapist. Because the movie is badly written we at first think he’s sympathetic - we see him sleeping in bed, lulled by the sound of a videotape of his dead daughter. In a better film the blind guy and the kids could each be sympathetic, and the fact that Rocky is trying to save her younger sister while he is traumatized by his inability to save his daughter could offer up solid thematic ground to till, but Alvarez, who co-wrote the movie, has no interest in thematics. Instead he has the blind guy execute Money in cold blood (which, morally, is a wash as you absolutely hate that character) before revealing he has a dungeon with a secret insemination lab in the basement.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. The introduction of the blind guy - played with real physical ferocity by Lang, by the way. He and cinematographer Pedro Luque are the only positive aspects of this movie - is where the movie should ramp up into siege/survival horror tension. Instead Alvarez opts to stage the movie in multiple discrete set pieces, many of which feel modular - you could move them around and it wouldn’t much matter where you placed them. They don’t feel like escalations, and the blind guy doesn’t actually do very much that feels interesting with his Daredevil-esque occasional super powers.
That’s one of the key problems in the film - the ‘scary’ scenes take two forms almost exclusively. One is that the characters stand around trying to be quiet while the blind guy pokes around a room and the other is that the blind guy pops up like Jason Voorhees out of fucking nowhere. The first kind of scene works once, early in the film, but never again, and part of the problem is the sound design of the film. We’re watching these characters try to be quiet but the needs of modern sound design - there must always be noise! - means that we clearly hear them groaning, shuffling and sobbing while the blind guy noses around. Because of modern sound design every time someone shifts their body they make a noise that could be heard two houses down; even if you suspend your disbelief for this sound mix there are multiple scenes where characters make all sorts of noises that anyone in the house should be able to hear, even without super blind guy powers.
The second type of scare - the blind guy just popping up out of nowhere - could be effective in the hands of someone like Jaume Collet-Serra, who would embrace the inherent absurdity of his premise and offer us the blind guy as an unstoppable force. Instead Alvarez whiffs this aspect, opting to make the blind guy either super sensitive to sound (he gets defeated by a fucking alarm ringing) or slightly less observant than a sighted person. At one point characters enter a code into a beeping safe that sounds like a microwave when you hit the buttons; in a quiet house you can hear that EVERYWHERE. Not in Don’t Breathe. Another scene has the blind guy picking up the scent of an abandoned shoe across a room… but never again does his sense of smell come into play, even when the movie spends a lot of time establishing the leads as smokers.
None of the set pieces felt particularly well constructed to me. None were bad, exactly, but none sang. The laziness that led Alvarez to not bother coming up with good gags involving the blind guy’s senses manifests here - when Rocky is in a crawlspace being chased by a dog we just see a shot of Rocky and then a shot of the dog and then a shot of Rocky, etc. Alvarez never sells you the sense of immediacy, which is especially strange in a movie that has already had a couple of scenes based on that exact concept, where characters stand stock still in the presence of the blind guy.
Other scenes are terribly lazy in execution; at one point the blind guy cuts the lights in the basement and the characters engage in a chase in a labyrinth of shelves, but Alvarez doesn’t do anything fun with the sequence (besides shoot it in night vision). There are no fake outs, no moments where the blind guy walks behind a character, not seeing him, or where two characters bump into each other and scare the shit out of each other. The punchline of this sequence is that the blind guy just pops his hands between shelves and grabs Doughboy’s neck.
That laziness extends to the very environment itself; this is a movie that mostly takes place inside the home of a blind man who is unhinged in some way. He lives in the last occupied house on a decimated street in Detroit - I would fully buy him setting up traps to thwart local burglars. More than that, why not create set pieces predicated on the way a blind person might live his life - does he have bells attached to doors to let him know that they’re opening, or does he have his furniture set up in strange ways that might fuck up a sighted person as they wander around his unlit house (because why would he have lights?). I don’t know how realistic that would be, but I would have bought it in the context of this movie, and a scene of Rocky unwittingly tripping an alarm would have added a different layer of tension. Hell, even changing up how the characters have to be quiet would be interesting - have Doughboy forced to sit silently while covered in bugs or something.
I found the movie to be slack and uninvolving, a film that wastes its own central conceit because the filmmakers are steadfastly against having fun with it, but that doesn’t make Don’t Breathe a real stinker. That just makes it yet another horror movie from a studio, a watered down and by the numbers collection of jump scares and the use of the thrumming bass brown note to give the audience a sense of unearned unease. No, what makes Don’t Breathe despicable is the insertion of a pointless rape subplot in act two.
Look, I’m usually on the wrong side of the ‘rape in horror movies’ argument; I have often defended movies that have unconscionably brutal and graphic sequences of sexual assault. I don’t write off movies because they include this trope, although I am wary of films that use this trope in a lazy and cheap way. And Don’t Breathe uses rape in a lazy and cheap way… while having the rapist explain that what he’s doing isn’t rape!
Here’s how I think the decision to include rape went: Alvarez and his co-writer Rodo Sayagues got to the second act and realized they had two problems. One: they had keep this movie spinning for another fifteen minutes or so to reach feature length and two: they made everybody have a point of view! Rocky is doing this robbery because she wants to save her sister and Doughboy is there because he feels Unrequited True Love towards Rocky; meanwhile the Blind Guy (he really has no name, by the way) is just trying to live his own quiet life in the aftermath of the death of his daughter and his blinding in Iraq. What we have here is a grey dance of morality, a scenario where it’s not clear for whom you should be rooting. And Screen Gems, aiming this movie at the Friday date crowd, couldn’t have that. The answer: give the blind guy a rape dungeon in his basement.
How anyone got to this plot development without laughing in scorn is beyond me, but the premise is that blind guy has found the young woman who ran over his daughter, kidnapped her, locked her up in his basement and INSEMINATED HER AGAINST HER WILL so she could give him a new child.
Also, he keeps a big vat of his own spunk in a freezer nearby in case he ever needs to top her up, I guess.
Okay, I get it. You’re Fede Alvarez, the same guy who squandered the ‘is she detoxing or is she possessed’ premise of his Evil Dead remake. You don’t have it in you to address larger moral questions and you have decided that, to avoid Wait Until Dark rip off complaints, you’re going to make the blind guy evil. But a rape dungeon? Couldn’t he have Iraqi gold or priceless plundered artifacts stored down there? Is that not visceral enough? It has to be a rape dungeon?
The whole rape dungeon subplot is offensive in its own way, but it’s also stupid. It isn’t thematically related to the rest of the movie in any real way (I thought a lot about maybe the home invasion relating to the sexual invasion, but it’s so thin I couldn’t even figure out what that thematic throughline could mean). Its other functional purpose in the movie, besides making us turn against the blind guy late in the film, is to give him an excuse to never call the cops (but if he doesn’t want the cops coming to his house and finding his rape slave why does he have a security system that automatically alerts the cops? Stupid), but that doesn’t feel like a big enough reason to introduce an element so broad into the movie at this stage. It’s worth mentioning that this movie has a rape dungeon but doesn’t have the balls to kill a dog. Alvarez would rather have women be sexually assaulted in his film than have his characters kill a vicious dog that is trying to rip their throats out.
Once we got to the rape dungeon I was checked out of the film. It’s such a cheap plot development that I realized Alvarez simply didn’t care what was happening in the movie, he just needed to keep adding elements to push the film along. As the film entered Raimi-esque zones of character abuse in act three I found myself unable to even remotely give a shit anymore. Speaking of Raimi, I suspect that the scene where the blind guy shoves shears into a body but it’s later revealed to be that of the already-dead Money and not Doughboy, his intended victim, was a Raimi idea. It’s the only moment in the whole film with a dark, playful spark of imagination and fun. And because it stands out so much it made my audience laugh in the wrong, disdainful way.
It’s worth noting that the third act is also neutered by the beginning of the movie. Don’t Breathe opens with the blind guy dragging a beaten, bloody Rocky down an abandoned Detroit street in broad daylight, telegraphing the ending in a profound way. It undercuts the ‘reveal’ that the blind guy is evil, which is stupid (and renders the rape room doubly redundant) and it alerts us that she’s going to be the character who survives. That’s a big deal because this movie only has three characters and one of them dies very early on; we’re robbed of the tension of guessing who of the remaining two will make it out alive.
I won’t even get into the terrible and cheesy ladybug motif that surrounds Rocky (although I will say this - her speech about why she has a ladybug tattoo is perhaps one of the clunkiest bits of dialogue I have ever heard. There were a zillion better ways to deliver that shitty, uninspired information) except to say that for something so corny it pays off in a really weak way. As does the final dispatching of the blind guy who, after being put into a state of seizure by a loud noise, falls into the basement and… shoots himself by accident.
Anyway, he doesn’t even die. The movie ends on a ludicrous note as Rocky and her sister sit in a badly set decorated warehouse that is supposed to be a train station and we hear a news anchor, speaking in the English of someone who just arrived on this planet, tell us that the brave old vet survived a night of torment at the hands of two teens. We see the blind guy on a gurney and then we see Rocky go to the train and… the end!
That’s it. He’s alive. That’s the ending of your horror movie? That’s the button? Why even bother? The only reason this sequence exists is so that when Don’t Breathe 2 comes out next year they don’t have to waste time explaining why the blind guy isn’t dead.
I’ll tell you how I would have ended this movie. I would have ended it with Rocky in a small shack on the beach in Los Angeles, looking out the window at her sister playing in the surf. There’s a knock on the door and she answers it, finding the blind guy and his dog standing there, holding her discarded shoe in his hand, sniffing it - he tracked her across the country. Smash to black! Does it make ‘sense?’ No, but it’s fun.
Fun is not on Fede Alvarez’ mind. He thinks he’s making grueling exercises in terror, but he’s really making unpleasant exercises in ‘who gives a shit?’ His films look good, but that’s about all he has going - he has no grasp on character or theme or structure or pacing or tension. He throws up some jump scares, puts his characters through the ringer and lights it really, really well.