One of the issues with modern horror films, particularly those with a human antagonist, is the filmmakers feel the need to give a grounding to their villain’s methods that they feel believable, and they have the same need to make the protagonists just unlikeable enough that when bad things happen to them, things don’t feel overly cruel. The problem is that when this goes wrong it comes across to a degree like victim-blaming – and leads to a toxic message like the one put forward in your standard ’80s slasher film. Don’t Breathe manages to avoid that – barely. This review will contain a few spoilers.
Don’t Breathe is set in modern Detroit, and follows a trio of thieves – Alex (Dylan Minnette), whose dad works for a security company and who helps the three get into homes – and who holds a torch for… Rocky (Jane Levy), who is trying to get out of Detroit with her sister and away from her drunk abusive mom and her neo-nazi boyfriend – using the cash from the stuff they steal which are fenced by… Money (Daniel Zovatto), who is dating Rocky, and who is a loud obnoxious boor.
Unable to make enough cash to pay for skipping town from their current jobs, Money gets a tip from his buyer about this house in an otherwise completely vacant neighborhood. The homeowner is a blind man (Stephen Lang), who is a former Desert Storm vet and who is living alone after his daughter was killed in a hit-and-run accident. The driver was acquitted, but after he sued, they settled for a large sum of money. The plan is to break in, steal the money, and get out — out of the house, and out of Detroit.
And if you’ve seen even one heist film, you know “Once Last Job” is a death flag. It pushes people not to walk away when things are going bad and forces you into situations you can’t get out of. Such is the case here – in this case, it pushes our protagonists into a horror film. They get into the house (past the large pit-bull) and have difficulty finding the cash… leading them to suspect that the money is in the basement, which is bolted and padlocked on the outside. You know, the kind of thing that screams “Torture Dungeon”.
This leads to the rest of the film. The Blind Man (as he is described in the credits), has a Zatoichi sense of an uncanny sense of hearing – and that combined with the fact that they’re in his house, gives him an uncanny advantage on the protagonists as he tries to kill them off – as that’s his aim, to kill them off more than to get the attention of the police, because there’s stuff in the basement he doesn’t want them to find.
This leads to one of the film’s greatest strengths – the sound design and sound editing. The film keeps the audio, and the music, at a premium. Silence and single sparse sounds like footsteps are a big deal in this film, causing the film to have an intense auditory landscape. The score only really comes up in scenes where the soundscape is more chaotic, serving to heighten that aspect of the film further.
That said, there are parts of the film I really don’t like. The film opens slightly in media res, with The Blind Man dragging an unconscious or semi-conscious Rocky down a street back to the house. That, in conjunction with both the reveal of the torture dungeon and what’s in it, sets up the idea that the film is going in the direction of a Torture-Porn film, which is not what I’m looking for. It’s not, but at one point it does get rapey, so be advised if that’s something that’s a problem for you.
Still, the film was very intense, and I do appreciate how it does what it does. It’s what I’d consider to be one of the best horror films of the 2010s, and for that, I think it’s worth your time.
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