‘Don’t Breathe’ is dull, loathsome horror

By Nate Taskin

('Don't Breathe' Official Facebook Page)
(‘Don’t Breathe’ Official Facebook Page)

Even before it starts to veer into really repugnant territory, “Don’t Breathe” maintains a consistent level of uninspired schlock all the way through. It’s a shame that an otherwise clever premise is squandered in favor of cheap, tasteless shock tactics.

Set in suburban Detroit, “Don’t Breathe” focuses on three delinquents who ransack houses because the father of one of their members works for a home security company, which grants them access to keys and knowledge of how to bypass those pesky security systems.

Once they receive a tip about a blind man (Stephen Lang, whose raw physicality is one of the film’s saving graces) who keeps thousands of dollars locked in a safe in his house – given to him as part of a settlement after a wealthy young woman killed his daughter in a car accident – they decide to embark on one last score.

Though the group believes that the man’s blindness will make for easy pickings, they soon discover that the Blind Man’s (he never gets an actual name) physical prowess, along with a keen sense of smell and hearing (though he seems to lose those abilities at the film’s convenience), makes him an unstoppable killing machine.

The central gimmick behind “Don’t Breathe,” where the teens have to make as little sound as possible as they try to outwit the almost-inhuman Blind Man (from “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” to “The Hills Have Eyes” the association between disability and monstrosity is nothing new to the horror genre), makes for some potentially clever moments if one can parse their ableist implications. It is unfortunate that director Fede Alvarez has zero clue how to utilize his set-up.

Although Pedro Luque’s cinematography – which I suspect played a key role in the film’s otherwise baffling critical acclaim – is genuinely impressive in its depiction of Detroit right before the sun rises, it’s undermined by Alvarez’s terrible directorial decisions.

Set pieces consist of two scenarios. One involves the characters standing still while the Blind Man shuffles about. The other has the Blind Man pop up out of nowhere so the movie can check off its jump scare quota. Indeed, these two forms are the extent of the film’s creativity.

There are no twists. No bait and switches. No traps that the teens accidentally spring. No “he’s standing right behind you” moments. No sense of escalation. From basement to living room, you could tell these scenes out of order and little would feel changed.

The only remotely imaginative bit is when the Blind Man shoves garden shears into an already dead body, believing that he has just eliminated another burglar, and the amount of inspiration in that one moment leads me to believe that it was producer Sam Raimi’s idea.

It certainly doesn’t help matters that our teenage heroes are terrible characters. Though Jane Levy, who plays the lead, is a charming actor, her characterization is a total wash. She’s given a completely pointless ladybug motif that seems to exist because, well, she has to have a motif. Her unrequited love interest, meanwhile, is played by Dylan Minnette, whose face looks like a genetic cocktail of every forgotten Disney Channel star – with the charisma to match.

Then there’s Money (Daniel Zovatto), a deliberately unlikeable Latino man who seems to exist so that we can have a death to cheer for – and because we need someone to drop the Hollywood-version of AAVE to stay hip with today’s kids. While Money is the character the movie telegraphs us to hate, I hated all of them, and not even in a fun, passionate way. They’re all just dull, nondescript, non-entities.

What epitomizes the film’s crass laziness the most, however, is its tactless depiction of rape.

When it comes to rape in media, it is possible to accurately demonstrate the devastating physical and emotional effect it has on its victims, and such respectful portrayals do exist. (In all honesty, though, the number of times can be counted on one hand.)

The use of rape in “Don’t Breathe” is not one of those portrayals. It’s shock for the sake of shock, and there’s no thematic or narrative reason for its existence. The only reason I can think of for its inclusion is to create a sense of moral ambiguity between the Blind Man and the three thieves, because otherwise, he’s just defending his house from intruders. Of course, this excuse is complete, utter hogwash because rape is a worse crime than burglary by any metric. The film attempts to build an equation that just isn’t there.

“Don’t Breathe” is a failure. It fails at characterization. It fails at tension. It fails at suspense. It doesn’t even know how to kill its idiot teens off properly. It uses sexual assault in a gross, irresponsible way because it knows it makes for some easy gasps. Fede Alvarez might say his film is grueling and unpleasant. He’s right, just not in the way he intended.

Nate Taskin can be reached at [email protected]