Few people have cleared a steeper hurdle with their feature debut as a director than Fede Alvarez. Having helmed 2013’s Evil Dead, he overcame the standard-issue swathes of remake/reboot cynicism to deliver one of the most convincing revivals the horror genre has ever seen. With follow-up Don’t Breathe, the gore takes a back seat in favour of suspense, and his growth as a director is self-evident. While it’s a similarly claustrophobic effort, comparisons end there, and it’s a flash of versatility that earmarks him as one of the genre’s most exciting filmmakers.
We open on a trio of criminals robbing a suburban home. Alvarez veterans will recognise Rocky as Evil Dead alum Jane Levy, and she’s joined here by Money (Daniel Zovatto, It Follows, Fear the Walking Dead) and the reluctant Alex (Goosebumps and Prisoners‘ Dylan Minnette). Rocky’s got her eyes on a brighter future – she wants to move to California with her sister, away from her mother and her deadbeat boyfriend (onscreen here long enough to be presented as one-dimensionally unlikeable). A quick route to doing that would be to rob the home of an unnamed former military man (Avatar and The Asylum‘s Stephen Lang) whose story Money happens upon. Sitting on a huge compensation payment following the tragic death of his daughter in a road accident, and having lost his sight in battle, a venture into his near-deserted neighbourhood for one big score sounds pretty textbook. Needless to say, they’ve fatally underestimated him, and before long they find themselves stranded in the home of an unexpectedly resourceful opponent.
Don’t Breathe is least effective during its exposition. Some awkward dialogue slows both momentum and performances, and makes the opening twenty minutes something of a battle, drawing uncomfortable attention to the one-dimensional nature of some of the characters. However, after its pieces fall into place, the skill with which it manages its escalating tension is genuinely remarkable. Alvarez dials up the claustrophobia brilliantly (at one point scanning the entire building with a tracking shot that looks virtually impossible), and uses every inch of the space to ratchet up the tension, at one point deftly switching to night vision when The Blind Man also effectively “blinds” his opponents in the basement by cutting the power.
Loaded with twists and absolutely breathless in its entertainment value, Don’t Breathe is the most bracingly effective exercise in cinematic tension since Jeremy Saulnier’s masterful Green Room. A certain amount of suspension of disbelief is required to enjoy it to its full potential (the logic and functioning of The Blind Man’s heightened senses seem to be tweaked ad nauseam to move with the function of the plot) but as a pure white-knuckle good time, you can’t do much better.