A response to austerity, poverty and class, Don’t Breathe bludgeons the senses with a taut, brooding eighty five minutes of home invasion horror.
Not horror in the traditional sense of schlock and gore. Fede Alvarez, hot off the commercially successful Evil Dead remake, wanted to very specifically avoid blood, guts and copious claret spilling with Don’t Breathe and deal in suspense. The horror of suspense is a very different animal than the kind of horror Sam Raimi popularised in his original Evil Dead (taking nothing away from that seminal franchise). Indeed the biggest compliment you can give Don’t Breathe is that were Alfred Hitchcock alive today, he may at least have approved of Alvarez’s picture, even if it’s a cliched stretch to suggest he would have directed something similar himself.
Home invasion horror has become a sub-genre all of its own in recent years, much like found footage or ‘torture porn’ (is that still a thing?). As an entity its been around for decades, from George Romero’s legendary Night of the Living Dead (1968), or Straw Dogs (1971) which has resonated through cinema even to the point it dug its roots, remarkably, into the James Bond franchise.
The sub-genre has enjoyed a real renaissance in recent years, with films such as Michael Haneke’s profoundly disturbing Funny Games (1997) or his American remake ten years later, The Strangers (2008), The Purge (2013) which may have blossomed into a franchise all of its own but very much started as a claustrophobic home invasion thriller, or Knock Knock (2015), Eli Roth’s absurdist cautionary tale with a Shatner-esque hammy turn from Keanu Reeves. Lately, home invasion is everywhere.
Alvarez here, in his script co-written with Rodo Sayagues, flips the concept on its head. Our protagonists are the invaders, not the invaded. Our monster in the dark, too, is the invaded. This too is a cautionary tale but a far less theatrically silly one than Knock Knock. Don’t Breathe rather is a tale about desperation more than greed, less about avarice and more about need.
His story pivots around Rocky (Jane Levy), a young mother turned larcenous thief with friend Alex (Dylan Minnette) and her ironically named boyfriend Money (Daniel Zovatto), who rob rich people’s houses thanks to inside security information pilfered from Alex’s father’s security company. Thieves they may be but our sympathies should be with them, especially upon learning Rocky seeks cash to escape her neglectful, white trash mother and her alcoholic boyfriend.
These are not bullish thieves on the lam, except perhaps Money who, understandably, gets his comeuppance fairly quickly. Rocky is a desperate Detroit woman driven to crime in order to escape an equally desperate life and Alvarez works hard to make her, especially, sympathetic. Class and status billows under Alvarez’s film, despite for the most part being a taut survival story. Rocky dreams of a better life for her daughter in California and in many respects her turn to crime is the only way she can achieve the fabled American Dream. Life, location and circumstance is never going to give her these opportunities so she must take them. Alvarez being on the side of these thieves puts him on the subversive side of capitalism.
Inevitably, the picture is all about them biting off more than they can chew when they pick the wrong target in Norman Nordstrom aka ‘The Blind Man’ (Stephen Lang). A middle aged war veteran with the powerful, towering physique of a man half his years, the Blind Man is a scarier antagonist than any manner of supernatural monsters that could be thrown at the screen. He is a response too to the heartless forces of capitalism who put down Rocky and her family. His legend talks of how his young daughter was accidentally killed in a hit & run by the daughter of a wealthy family, who due to her connections escaped justice. The Blind Man’s rage is justified, even if his actions are extreme and unjust.
Placing our ‘villain’ in this context allows Alvarez to play out a central moral quandary. Who are the real bad guys here? The Blind Man is in many ways as much a victim as Rocky. The ultimate villain is the one we only see represented in the wealthy family daughter the Blind Man has kidnapped, and she too is a victim. The true villains lurk inside the class commentary deep inside Alvarez’s film. The players in this drama are driven either by opportunity, the desire to survive, or grief stricken sadness and rage. It makes the tense, heart in mouth siege within the Blind Man’s home all the more powerful, a home itself an isolated fortress surrounded by a sea of abandoned homes, no doubt too filled with shadows of those crushed by austerity.
Alvarez helps communicate this pitched battle by using light, sound and presence. Numerous inventive scenes allow the atmosphere of the old, multi-tiered house to be used as a canvas for the director to play out his tapestry, as the Blind Man fights off the invaders looking to score the 300k ‘pay off’ money the rich parents of his daughters killer gave him. Said invaders quickly become the victims, stalked by a force who uses sound, smell and the absence of light to his devastating advantage; one particularly tense and effective scene sees Rocky & Alex trapped in an underground basement in pitch darkness and Alvarez’ camera switches to starched grey night vision, which captures the terror of our leads fumbling around in blackness trying to avoid their enemy.
More than once, Alvarez makes superb use of the absence of sound, or the full brevity of it, either as a weapon or as a tool to make the audience hold their breath as much as our characters do. The film holds that knife edge centre, after a slightly mechanical set up, across almost the entire picture and perhaps only loses it a touch once we enter the final third and Alvarez, partly by necessity, has to take the story out of the home and into the light a little. It does help pay off his opening proclamation of course; the film begins with a shot of the Blind Man dragging Rocky by her hair up his lonely street, which gives the entire film an ominous, foreboding pallor. We know the invaders won’t succeed.
Quite what Alvarez intends for Rocky is the most disturbing aspect and hits head on the parental theme undulating beneath alongside the class commentary. Perhaps the most repulsive moment is the Blind Man, in slow motion, approaching Rocky with a turkey baster filled with his semen he intends to use to impregnate her, as she’s strapped to a harness in his basement, so he can replace the daughter cruelly taken from him. The Blind Man, being a murderer and rapist (even if he denies being such) is never sympathetic but this tips him into madness and there’s an argument its a horrific beat too far.
Most impressively though, Alvarez manages to leave his picture on a question. Rocky has the money, she has the Dream laid out in front of her, the chance to escape the fate of her own mother, but the Blind Man survives and doesn’t play the victim. Does he do this in order to prevent the true depth of his own crimes being discovered? Or in some final act of goodness does he allow Rocky to experience the life with her daughter he never managed to have with his own? It’s a little chilling but a touch ambiguous, capping of a film which may primarily be an exercise in reversed home invasion suspense, chills and horror theatrics, but successfully maintains theme and subtext beyond.
Don’t Breathe isn’t searing polemic but its absolutely an indictment on Western austerity and the desperate means some of us are driven to. One of the tightest pieces of horror with a voice in some years.