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Fede Alvarez’s “Don’t Breathe” is a Perfectly Plotted, Table-Turning Slasher

The absurdly good year for horror, especially claustrophobic slashers, continues unabated thanks to Fede Alvarez’s astounding Don’t Breathe.  This film does all the right things, and manages to be both super creepy and genuinely scary.  It twists the accepted formula of the slasher into something fresh, and is capable of generating extreme discomfort through mood as easily as it executes wonderful jump scares.  The film relies on only a small collection of actors, but is able to provide them with justifiable back stories, motivations, and actions throughout the story.  Don’t Breathe is the complete package, a dreary gem of a film which is sure to terrify and delight fans of horror – and recruit many, many more.

Plot complexity is not a requisite for quality, and Don’t Breathe clearly exemplifies this philosophy.  Essentially, we have a trio of petty thieves who case joints that they know to be 100% safe thanks to inside information.  They are even sure to not steal anything in excess of $1000, in order to prevent a charge of grand theft.  Their mouths water over the prospect of robbing a blind war vet of some settlement money, so after a day of reconnaissance  they are ready to go.  Of course, once they’re in the house, they find that the blind war vet isn’t quite so helpless.  Predator becomes prey in the span of an instant, and a clandestine robbery becomes a fight for their very lives.

Throughout the story there are outstanding plotting choices, to the point that I never found myself asking, “why” or “how” something was happening – not once.  Choices which seem strange at first all payoff in laudable ways, and frankly by the end I just sat stupefied at how well everything came together.  There are moments where Chekov’s <blank> makes an appearance, but I don’t really have much of a problem with that in this kind of slasher flick.  I also love the quickness with which things turn in this movie, all of choices that allow the plot to feel organic and earned.

There are really only a handful of main characters:  the three thieves, the blind guy, and his dog.  Alex (Dylan Minnette) is the kid whose dad works for a home security firm, and that’s why the thieves are generally over-confident and assured of their own success.   Main kid, main girl, blind bad guy.  Probably want to spend most of the time on the bad guy.  Rocky (Jane Levy) and Money (Daniel Zovatto) are a couple, and they fill out the remainder of the team.  Rocky has a hard home life and seeks the big payday in order to rescue her little sister from their mouth-breathing parents, while Money simply wants . . . you guessed it.  All three of these actors perform admirably, with very few irksome line reads or other missteps.  But they are not the stars of the film.

That’s the bad guy and his dog.  Billed only as “The Blind Man”, Stephen Lang absolutely destroys in this role.  He maybe barks half a dozen lines throughout the entire film, and despite his obvious handicap he is a relentless force of dread in this film.  He is meticulous, brutal, and unnerving.  And though he has been driven quite mad, there is still a part of him that we can’t help but admire, or at least pity.  Alvarez keeps at least a shred of his humanity, and coupled with the fact that our “protagonists” are nothing but petty thieves, it becomes fairly easy to cheer for Lang’s character – at least sometimes.

Because despite its small location, Don’t Breathe is an absolute whirlwind.  The stylistic choice of a blind antagonist opens up the cinematic possibilities, and Alvarez takes full advantage.  You will get sequences where the thieves try to remain as quiet as possible as The Blind Man scours the room with his hands and feet looking for clues to their whereabouts.  You will see scenes where he appears, soundlessly, and walks right past one of them.  You’re definitely going to be treated to a black-out sequence that will entice your heart to leap out your throat.  They get so much mileage out of this one aspect of Lang’s character that it is fascinating.  And, just when you think the thieves have circumvented everything, The Blind Man’s very sighted and very angry Rottweiler comes out to play.

Very few horror flicks are able to expand organically into heavy thematic material, and this is especially true for slashers.  It can be difficult to impart much meaning in to a story about a madman killing people one-by-one, after all.  But Don’t Breath is able to be something more by crafting the conflict around a specific set of circumstances which I will not reveal because they inform the overall plot heavily.  As such,  while watching the narrative unravel, we find ourselves wondering about absolution, justice, and an interesting twist on the “honor among thieves” trope.   It also helps that Don’t Breathe has some creepy, dingy twists up its sleeves.

As I am sure you can tell, I think Don’t Breathe is a stellar movie.  The horror genre is having a great year spanning from the weird supernatural creepy stuff like The VVitch and The Conjuring 2 all the way to the brutality of the slashers like Green Room.  Alvarez’s fine film belongs in that same rarefied air, and will likely be remembered as one of the stronger efforts in an above-par year for scary things.  If you’re in the mood for some frights, I can’t recommend Don’t Breathe enough.

Don’t Breathe was the latest horror flick to open #1 at the Box office this year, and it is doing pretty well with critics as well.  If you were one of the folk who ventured out to see it last week, let me know how you felt about the film in the comments.  If you’re something of a horror buff, make sure to share this piece by re-tweeting, liking on Facebook, and all those good things.

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Derek Jacobs

Chicago,IL 60606

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