REVIEW: “Don’t Breathe” (Fede Alvarez, 2016)

What they’d call Hell, He calls Home

I know it’s been a while since I last wrote a film review, but if we look at the
summer film season (May-Sept) of 2016, it should abundantly clear why.
This has been a summer of “meh” and mediocrity.
This has been The Summer of DisContent is shit.
As a reviewer, I don’t think I should be putting in more time and thought into a review of a film than the writers and directors put into the creation and execution of that film. I could have done a review of Suicide Squad, but it’s apparent to me that none of the creative or editorial team gave the film any thought, so why should I?

I return to writing with good reason. That reason is Fede Alvarez’s end-of-summer psychological horror/thriller, “Don’t Breathe”.
“Don’t Breathe” is not just some uninspired, throwaway, possession/exorcism jump-scare-reliant horror, such as the kind that has proliferated the mainstream horror scene ad nauseum for the past few years. No, “Don’t Breathe” is a Hitchcockian masterclass in suspense: it’s tight and unrelenting. It’s not just a good horror/thriller, but a really great film; an excellently crafted, meticulously directed piece of cinematic art that pays off everything it sets up.


The master of suspense

The premise is simple and effective: three teenage serial burglars think they’ve found their big score and it’s going to be easy, $300k in the house of an old blind man – no problem!

The problem arises when it is revealed that the old man is a war vet and a lot tougher and far more prepared than they expected. The delicate crime they had planned goes to shit when the leader of the gang, a douchey, “Bro”-spouting alpha male raises a gun to the old man: what was started out as petty theft becomes violent robbery. Now it’s a home invasion, and now the sightless hexagenarian has justification to raise arms and commit violence in the defence of his property and kickstart the forward thrust of the story. He does so with militant efficiency; he may be out of the warzone, but the warzone is not out of him. Protective predator mode is engaged and he begins his hunt for the rest of the home invaders, and I cant say I disagree with his motivation, at least in context of the film.


This is the important thing, motivation and reason. Summer 2016 has been stacked with things just happening because they would be cool, or because the context of a given action has been left on the cutting room floor due to “studio intervention”. In this film, the two important characters, the “Final Girl” and the Blind Man, have clear and understandable motivations.


I’m looking at you, David Ayer

Kurt Vonnegut said that you shouldn’t write “a bad guy”, you should write a character that wants something and that something is the opposite of what the hero wants and The Blind Man embodies this: he wants self-entitled teenagers to leave him and his house alone.

When the burglars become the hunted, the tension is unrelenting; the old, dark house seems almost to engulf the youths like they’ve already dug their graves by trespassing and this is their coffin. I felt almost no sympathy for them for the majority of the film, in the context of the film universe, The Blind Man deserves to know he will be safe in his own home and the teens deserve to die.
The standout of this film is The Blind Man, played by Avatar’s Stephen Lang. With very little dialogue, he radiates an aura of potential menace whilst remaining largely innocent. It is in this innocence we find empathy. Yes, he’s a scary old bastard, but it’s the teenage robbers who are in the wrong. The film wants us to root for their success, but they’re thieves stealing from an old blind man who isn’t violent until provoked. It’s actually quite a nuanced performance by Lang, he shows bloodthirsty determination and a quiet strength but he also shows that this scary old man is no monster (initially) and has physical and emotional vulnerabilities.

Alvarez’s direction is impeccable but never self-indulgent. He utilises the Blind Man’s absence of sight and sharpness of hearing to involve you in the film, after a while you too are holding your breath, hoping not to be heard. Alvarez directs and misdirects you, he shows you things to remember for later, some of them important, some of them not, but all seem equally important at the time. The consequence of this is that the intended surprises and twists of the film remain surprising despite having been set up and signalled much earlier in the film. You kick yourself for not remembering but you marvel at how the director made you forget just long enough to deliver on the moments of horror.
Terror is the suspense and looming dread before you see the monster.
Horror is the sickening reality of seeing the monster.
The film delivers both of these in equal and careful measure, the suspense being the finer and more delicate feeling to evoke.
Sometimes the monster isn’t a man; sometimes it’s an idea, or an action.
To top it all off, Don’t Breathe doesn’t use jump scares or quietquietquietquietBANG to make you jump and squirm, it’s far more psychological than that.
It’s much better than 90% of mainstream horror films released these days.
Well worth the time and money, I’d watch it again, and you should too.

8/10 – What did you think?

Matt S



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