Film Review: Don’t Breathe (USA, 2016) is an unexpected refresh to an exhausted genre

Fede Alvarez surprised horror fans in 2013 when he tackled a remake of Evil Dead in a way that was satisfying and consistent with the classic blood-soaked series. This time around the Uruguayan director is trying his hand at something much different, a sharp original home-invasion thriller titled Don’t Breathe about three delinquent burglars who try for one last heist and end up in over their heads battling a blind army vet (genre legend Stephen Lang) who happens to be much more terrifying than he initially seems.

Alvarez brings an aggressive energy and relentless sense of suspense to the screen, weaving through a small Detroit house in a way that makes the set seem much larger, more encompassing than it really is. From the outside, the lingering shots on the decaying neighbourhood home thread dread into the fabric of the otherwise uninspired first act, showing a more restrained Alvarez who frugally builds somewhat of a back story of these young house invaders before throwing them into a locked house with a savage killer; one who is unexpectedly resourceful despite his condition.

Lang’s character is an aging, lone man who has no one but his seriously vicious guard dog as company after his daughter’s fatal car accident. A massive payout from the tragedy is what lures the young robbers into his home, creating a simple connection that falls by the wayside as the invasion turns into a desperate game of survival.

Forget the fragile connections between the robbers or their backstories – they rarely come into play – what’s important for Don’t Breathe is how such a simple premise is magnified into a full-blown horror/thriller that moves along with such a ferocious sense of energy thanks to the smart, in-your-face direction. You’ll first notice it when the robbers eventually enter the house and Alvarez enters a beautiful, elaborate tracking shot that winds around the house – filled with saturated dark colours and deep, mysterious shadows – and fleshes it with detail before really forcing our teeth to sink into the action.

Genre staples necessary to the home invasion thriller would feel tired and uninspired if it wasn’t for the bone-cracking, heavy use of sound and muscular camera work, taking the familiar key-fumbling chase scenes and turning them into monstrous masterclasses of tension to bring out the fact that what small groundwork the film did before the robbery actually did help establish these one-note young thieves as somewhat sympathetic, even if the emotional switch is already forcefully flipped against Lang’s vet as soon as you discover his really dark secret.

There are very few laughs here, Alvarez clearly wanted to go straight for the jugular and milk every second for nail-biting terror, although there is one particular memorable scene which will have audiences squirming with nervous laughter. Let’s just say it involves a turkey baster and semen, a fun break from all the suspense Alvarez really proves himself to be an expert in building.

Lang’s howls and growls are wolf-like in a way, his imposing screen presence invaluable to the film. His physical performance is starkly contrasted with the often confused and frantic thieves, slotting him in as a big, hulking mass of a villain that, while vulnerable on account of his blindness, transcends the notion of disability to terrorise these kids. It’s a very interesting dynamic, one which looked silly in the trailer but allows for Alvarez to get a bit creative with how these players move around this dark, dangerous, and claustrophobic chess board. And that’s the biggest reason why Don’t Breathe works so well: creativity; bringing a huge, unexpected refresh to an exhausted genre and using clever direction to fuse it all together.


Run Time: 88 minutes

Don’t Breathe screens in Australian cinemas from Thursday 1st September


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Chris Singh

Chris Singh is an Editor-At-Large at the AU review, loves writing about travel and hospitality, and is partial to a perfectly textured octopus. You can reach him on Instagram: @chrisdsingh.