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At The Picture Show
August 2016

Don't Breathe

Reversal of fortune

On power dynamics, screwball logic, and physical acting in Don't Breathe

Don't Breathe
Screen Gems
Director: Fede Alvarez
Screenplay: Fede Alvarez and Rodo Sayagues
Starring: Jane Levy, Stephen Lang, Dylan Minnette and Daniel Zovatto
Rated R / 1 hour, 28 minutes / 2.35:1
August 26, 2016
(out of four)

The upper hand can be an elusive thing. Just ask every character in Don't Breathe, a tilt-a-whirl of a home-invasion thriller in which control of the circumstances is always temporary, if not illusory.

Turning the tables is one thing - every movie pulls that move. But this one does it so often, and so gleefully, that it's practically an ethos. There's almost a screwball logic to it, built on swaps and reversals and accidents and twists of fate that cascade upon each other and render the stakes virtually meaningless. You almost get the sense that this struggle - between a hard-ass blind man and the three amateur thieves trying to rob him - could go on forever. It's so much less about whether or not they get away with the loot and so much more about the power dynamics that play out over the course of the attempt.

In transforming a standard smash-and-grab setup into something more loopy, demented and grim, director Fede Alvarez cleverly plays with fluid notions of victimhood and predation, which constantly shift depending on circumstance - and our response to which relies so often on what we do not yet know. Our loyalties change; the scales unbalance and re-balance; the ultimate objectives shift completely. Then it all fluctuates again. And again. When all is said and done, it may not resolve or add up to a whole lot, but it has revealed almost everything about the character of all involved. Their best-laid plans may have gone up in smoke - and that goes for every character - but one way or another, they showed us exactly who they are.

Robberies in movies, of course, never go smoothly. But these small-timers - Rocky (Jane Levy), Alex (Dylan Minnette) and Money (Daniel Zovatto) - have reason enough to believe this one will be a cakewalk. They've been ripping off houses for months and haven't gotten caught yet. Makes it easy when you never set off any alarms - thanks to the keys and security codes procured by Alex, whose dad works for a security company. And in any case, the ramshackle corner of Detroit where they do their business - the kind of place where a tumbleweed would feel right at home, and which hasn't heard a police siren in what must feel like an eternity - has been so thoroughly abandoned that they won't have to worry about spying neighbors or passers-by.

Most important of all, their newest target seems low-risk even by their standards. To the extent that it's borderline cruel - much crueler than with the highly insured residences in which they typically make their business. This time it's an old blind man who lives by himself on a forgotten street, a dog as his only companion. He is believed to have a few-hundred K stashed somewhere in his rundown home, the result of a wrongful-death cash settlement stemming from his daughter's passing some time earlier.

But they don't have much time to pity the man. No matter his backstory, their reasons for wanting what he's got are more important. Rocky wants to escape her racist stepdad and take her younger sister far, far away from here. Alex ... well, he just wants Rocky, a fact not lost on Money, who seems to fancy himself the alpha of the group and, if nothing else, is the most natural criminal of the three.

As far as they're concerned, the job is an easy one. They have every advantage. They know all the entrances and exits. They know the security code for the alarm system. They know the man's daily routine. They've got weapons, just in case. And they've got drugs with which to tranquilize the mean old dog. Not to mention the most obvious advantage - they can see, and he can't. All they've got to do is get in, get the money, get out.

Then again ...

"Then Again..." could practically be the film's epigraph. Because the situation, needless to say, is more complicated than they know, the terrain more treacherous, the old man much, much more formidable a target. After all, this is his home turf. And he does have that mean-ass dog. And he's ex-military - which means he's got weapons of his own. And also, hey, maybe this trio of twentysomethings doesn't quite know the layout of his house as well as they think they do? The blind man (Stephen Lang) is practically a proxy for the film itself, equipped with a few secrets that no one is quite prepared for.

This is, on its face, a standard thriller setup, and though there are no supernatural elements in play, Alvarez handles the material - increasingly so as the story pretzels around - with mythical, sinister tones. That this robbery will not be easy goes without saying. That everyone in this house - everyone - will be effectively trapped in an existential death match is a fact that only slowly dawns on them. Beyond the nuts and bolts, Don't Breathe is excessively playful in its morbid power dynamics and reversals. In essentially re-interpreting a heist story as a sexualized blood-and-guts horror film, Alvarez heightens the pitch - the pure madness of the violence and the peril - while keeping the internal logic grounded in a more objective reality.

Horror is almost always intrinsically about vulnerability, and this film brings that to the fore. Alvarez often frames his characters to evoke exactly that - or, alternately, to call it into question. There is one scene involving two characters - one has a gun; the other is blind, and yet by all other objective measures the most dangerous of the two. Only one of the two knows exactly where the other is; the other knows the layout of the physical space. The pace at which this relatively brief sequence plays out is agonizing; in particular, the shots Alvarez chooses - emphasizing the space between the two and the physical advantage(s) of one vs. the other - concentrates, in the staging of just one scene, the shaky balance of power that plays out throughout the film. Both characters are in power and both are impotent, simultaneously. Like the tennis ball hovering - frozen - perfectly above the net at the beginning of Match Point, this scene is pregnant with diametrically opposed - and, as far as we know, equally horrifying - possibilities.

The scene wordlessly speaks volumes about both characters. This is a very physical movie in a number of ways - bodies are treated as infinitely vulnerable but deeply resilient - a fact embodied best by the performance of Lang, whose forceful physicality is essential to the film's potency. That we can fear or pity him depending on the scene or the circumstance is owed largely to his uniquely expressive physical presence, the rawness of his own emotions (including, and most importantly, his fear) at times almost belittling his intimidating frame. Don't Breathe is a near-constant tangle of people being removed from, or stripped of, their source of power - tactical, sensory, sexual, geographical - then regaining it, then losing it again. It's the kind of film whose most savage moment - a sudden and ironic reversal of power - can also be its funniest. It's so effective at its best that the endgame almost doesn't matter, or is bound to be an afterthought. No matter - it's a delirious enough battle while it lasts.

Read more by Chris Bellamy

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