Fede Alvarez trades amputation for atmosphere in “Don’t Breathe”

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Place and space have just as much to do with successful horror as a memorable monster or killer. Fede Alvarez proves as much in Don’t Breathe, a far cry from his Evil Dead remake four years ago. Sam Raimi affirms his belief in Alvarez by entrusting him with a brand new property this time, rather than asking him to remake his low-budget classic with, what seemed impossible at the time, even more desecration and dismemberment. Alvarez shakes the blood off his coat with Don’t Breathe. It is all atmosphere all the time and proves that he has the chops that may make him a mainstay even outside the horror genre in years to come.

Alvarez reunites with lone Evil Dead survivor Jane Levy for Don’t Breathe, a home invasion thriller that bends the rules to their logical breaking point. She plays Rocky who, along with Alex (Dylan Minnette) and Money (Daniel Zovatto), scratch out a living in the abandoned shell of inner-city Detroit by robbing homes. Alex’s dad runs a home security company and they hit his clients for just under ten grand at a time, as to avoid significant jail time. The typical “one last big score,” allowing the trio to escape their impoverished confines, comes in the form of Norman Nordstrom’s (Stephen Lang) home. Norman recently received a healthy settlement from a wealthy family whose daughter hit and killed his own with her car. Money says there is up to a quarter-of-a-million hidden somewhere in his house, not to mention the robbery should be a breeze because–here is the kicker–Norman is a blind veteran.

The lead up to the break-in–I would venture to say three quarters of the movie take place in Norman’s home–is boilerplate background noise. The group is shown robbing a large house in a wealthy suburb, Rocky and Money dream of the day they can escape their bleak perspective of Detroit and Alex is established as the clear-headed member of the group. He makes sure to cap the group’s haul at 10 grand and breaks windows as to not bring his father under suspicion. Their surroundings dictate their anarchistic worldview. Alex lives behind what appears to be the now abandoned Michigan Central Station. Perhaps no building serves as a greater reminder of Detroit’s working class decline.

Things start quietly in Norman’s dreary domicile. Alvarez, in a shot that feels reminiscent of James Wan’s tracking in The Conjuring series, gives the viewer an immediate blueprint of the home. It is unique to the blind man. Sides of walls are dark where he has run his hand to feel his way and the living room has furniture pushed to the walls, leaving only a carpet with corners duct-taped to the floor. Money makes a peep, and once the vet is on his feet he never leaves them, pursuing the intruders to the ends of the earth.

The close confines require palpable panic and claustrophobia on the part of Levy and Minnette, and for the most part they accomplish the task. When Money gets a bullet to the temple and is left dead and bleeding on the ground, Norman has no idea there are others in the house with him. Rocky is forced to watch Money, her boyfriend, packaged and disposed of by Norman, in an act the homeowner appears to perform without, and pardon the pun, blinking an eye. Levy showed that in Evil Dead, when not possessed by the Necronomicon, she can contort her expressions into searing fear and breathless despair. There are several times when she is sitting or standing right next to Norman trying not to make a peep, and an innate desire to hold and prevent her from making a sound cannot help but bubble to the mind’s surface.

Lang revives the facial scarring that made him one of the best parts of Avatar. His pale blue eyes are menacing without looking at anything. There are also instances where he rushes through the home in pursuit of Alex and Rocky, particularly one scene in the pitch-black basement, show his hands grasping at whatever may feel familiar. His head and neck are like an ostrich’s, protruding so he is able to smell, feel, or hear whatever or whomever is in his way.

The tension is heightened by Roque Baños’ score. Thumps of muffled bass sound not like a soundtrack, but booms from the depths of the house, as if something is desperately trying to force its way out. For viewers who like the sadistic side of Alvarez’s work and may be worried by the shortage of viscera, have no fear. Norman’s house has something else besides stacks of cash, and his intentions are, to put it lightly, unsavory. The reveal, if anything, takes the viewer out of the headspace so carefully crafted by Alvarez; it is a little much for a chamber piece such as this. Regardless, the filmmaker is onto something here, and largely succeeds at it. Watch for him on the horizon.


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