Format: DVD from Sandwich Public Library through interlibrary loan on The New Portable.
I think there’s a fine line between what constitutes a horror movie and what gets called a thriller, at least in my mind. To me, “horror” as a genre implies some element of the supernatural or at least the unnatural. Thrillers are often horrific movies, but for me, they are based more in the real world. This is not a hard and fast rule. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, for instance, is purely a horror movie despite having no supernatural element. With a movie like Don’t Breathe, we’re riding that line as well. My gut tells me this is more of a thriller than a horror movie, but there are certainly elements of horror here.
If you think this suggests that there’s nothing supernatural going on in Don’t Breathe, you’d be correct. We start with three young thieves. These are Alex (Dylan Minnette), Money (Daniel Zovatto), and Rocky (Jane Levy). Alex’s father owns a security company, which gives him information about their homes and security information. The three break into the house, shut down the alarm, and steal. To keep themselves out of trouble, they don’t steal money and they never steal more than $10,000-worth of goods. Break that number, and it becomes a felony offense. Once they are done, they set off the alarm and Money fences what they’ve stolen.
Rocky wants a few more good scores to get out of Detroit. Her goal is to move to California with her sister Diddy (Emma Bercovici) to escape her neglectful mother. The problem is that their fence isn’t giving them any real money for their scores. He suggests a new mark: a house that is in a now-abandoned neighborhood. The owner is a military veteran (Stephen Lang) who was blinded in Iraq. His daughter was killed in a car accident from which he got a large settlement. He seems like an easy mark, and even though they’d be stealing cash and a lot more of it than $10,000, it would certainly get Rocky out of Detroit.
Now, because this is a movie, things aren’t going to go as planned. Our blind military veteran is quite a bit smarter and far wilier than our trio assumes he would or could be. He’s also holding a great deal more money than our robbers expected and he’s harboring a secret in his basement that is horrifying and shocking in so many ways.
There’s a moment in Don’t Breathe that I still don’t know how to react to. In a horror sense, it’s incredibly brutal and terrible. It’s a moment that is such a violation that anyone who has ever experienced any sort of physical or sexual assault should be given a trigger warning. I haven’t experienced anything like that, and I almost needed a warning myself. It’s astonishing. So it’s a great horror moment, but it’s also so transgressive that I’m not sure what to really think about it.
While there is nothing in Don’t Breathe that delves into the realm of the supernatural, three are moments that stretch believability. I’m okay with that, though, since it’s really what makes this movie skirt the line between thriller and horror.
Don’t Breathe has two performances that are worth note. Jane Levy is really good in this. She plays Rocky as smart and tough, but also completely terrified, as she should be. Despite her thieving ways, we end up rooting for Rocky as being the closest thing to a hero that we have. She’s got a reason for what she is doing, and while what she’s doing is clearly wrong, we understand her motivations. Levy plays her as she needs to be played—a survivor. The other good performance her is Stephen Lang, who is a chameleonic “that-guy.” Here, he is about as far away from his cowardly reporter in Manhunter or the equally cowardly Ike Clanton from Tombstone as he could be.
Where I think Don’t Breathe goes off the rails is in the character of Alex. Alex comes across as far too smart and far too methodical to get wrapped up with a guy like Money, who is clearly unhinged and dangerous. We can understand why Rocky is doing what she is doing, but Alex, who is thoughtful, careful, and intelligent enough to know exactly how much he needs to skirt which laws, has no motivation to get involved in this sort of crime. I buy it for Money, who is dumb enough to think he can’t get caught. I buy it from Rocky, who is desperate. Alex needs an explanation, and we’re not going to get one.
Beyond that, Don't Breathe has a problem with atheism, as most movies that include it do. Our blind vet, having lost his daughter and his eyesight, is now a Hollywood atheist--someone who claims to not believe in a god because he is angry with the god he used to believe in. He commits and has committed some truly awful acts in the film, acts that he justifies by his lack of belief in a god. Really, Hollywood--hire an atheist as a consultant now and then. Get it fucking right.
All in all, though, I think this is done well. It has its problems, but they’re the sort of problems that crop up twenty minutes after the movie ends. In the moment, it really is about some high tension situations that ratchet up the scares beautifully.
Why to watch Don’t Breathe: A good premise taken to its limit.
Why not to watch: Like most movies, it has no understanding of what atheism is.