It’s no secret that the past few years at the box office have been dominated by superhero and fantasy films. As a result, there’s been a bit of backlash as to whether or not we should celebrate or condemn this trend.
Little to no experimentation, a lack of originality, you name it. The opposing arguments will be the same in any think piece you’ll find floating around about the subject.
Nowhere is the largely negative impact of this shift felt more than in the genre that has always been on the fringes: horror. The most recent crop of thrillers have been nothing but disappointing, to say the least.
Historically, horror/thriller films have always been on the cheaper side of things, making it the home of ideas that usually border on campy than high brow. The current need to compete with larger fan fare has lead to convoluted CG-infused messes only good for a few good moments.
Don’t Breathe, directed by Fede Alvarez (Evil Dead, Ataque de Pánico!), is the most recent entry into the thriller sphere that not only attempts but succeeds at correcting the follies of its competition. With a simple yet effective plot and an even better execution, Don’t Breathe manages to do what most of its peers fail to: building legitimate suspense over cheap jump scares.
The film follows down-and-out Detroit natives Rocky (Jane Levy), Alex (Dylan Minnette), and Money (Daniel Zovatto) who barely manage to get by robbing the houses of wealthy people. The trio finds their one way ticket out in the form of a large amount of cash tucked away in a house whose only resident is a reclusive blind war veteran (Stephen Lang).
What seems like an easy score soon takes a turn for the worst when they realize that there’s more to the blind man than meets the eye. The premise is by far the film’s biggest strength, with everything being straightforward from the start. Abusive upbringings and hidden affection are just enough motivation to at least partially get behind the trio’s less than stellar actions.
Alvarez’s take on the plot is nothing but frugal. No time is wasted on over-the-top exposition given by a bad academic or lost video. The fact that we’re just as clueless as they are as to what the blind man might do next adds tension over time. The general vibe given off feels like something familiar but fresh at the same time, which is interesting given that Alvarez’s last film, Evil Dead (2013), was a subpar remake.
Every aspect, from the setting to the antagonist, was utilized in a fun and engaging fashion. A movie that mostly takes place in a house could get stale pretty quickly. Without giving too much away, there’s one scene in particular that’s shot in night vision that makes the choice of locale anything but boring.
Granted not every detail is as carefully thought out as you’d think it would be. For a film this inventive, it’s a bit disappointing how shallow the economic motivations of Rocky, Alex, and Money were. A good amount of nuance was lost with the choice not to dig deeper into that mindset.
At its core, Don’t Breathe is a standout that knows how to keep the punches rolling without ever breaking a sweat. With minor flaws few and far between, the biggest takeaway lies in the lesson that it’s often smaller scale films that can offer the better experience.