The new Netflix release Don’t Breathe (2016) opens with Rocky’s (Jane Levy’s) bloody body being dragged down the street. This does nothing to dissipate the tension that runs throughout the movie.
Far from the stereotypical horror, Don’t Breathe blurs the lines of good and bad. Director Fede Alvarez does not rely on supernatural horrors, instead he shows us that the most frightening things exist in real life.
Reunited with Levy, who also played the protagonist in his 2013 movie Evil Dead (a contender for the best horror movie of the decade), Alvarez creates a complicated relationship between desire, crime, and ultimately, the will to survive.
Don’t Breathe follows three thieves: Rocky, Alex (Dylan Minnette), and Money (Daniel Zovatto) as they enter the home of an Iraq veteran (Stephen Lang) and attempt to steal his money.
The thieves are surprisingly easy to sympathise with bar the paper gangster Money, who complicates the robbery by bringing a gun. Alvarez uses Alex to depict the moralistic burglar: he is outraged that Money has brought a weapon, and wonders aloud how it will effect their jail sentence if caught.
Rocky’s home life is less than desirable. She needs to steal from the veteran to take her sister away from her alcoholic mother. This desire leads her to travel further and further into the depths of the man’s house, and discover more horrors along the way.
Alex is more of a mystery. His main motivation appears to be quick cash, and the crush he is harboring for Rocky, which Money quickly shoots down.
‘You think just because you jerk off to her Instagram selfies, that makes you a Romeo?’
In Alvarez’ world everything comes together. At least at first.
Alex father works for a home security company, so they can break into the man’s house without a sound. The man is a reclusive veteran who lives on a street full of abandoned houses meaning the three thieves can enter undetected. Coincidentally, the man is blind.
Any hope of a quick burglary unravels when the trio enter the house.
Money gases the old man to sleep in his own bed. Minutes later the old man appears in the living room, asking, ‘Who, who’s there?’
The audience is almost fooled into thinking the man is a feeble pensioner. Until he attacks Money.
Don’t Breathe is heavy on the visuals and the sound effects. There is scarcely any dialogue as the tables turn on the thieves and it becomes clear that they exist within the blind man’s world. Every movement, every breath, is a step closer to death.
The most memorable scene is one in which the vet flips the electricity switch. He then uses objects he has placed around the basement (a fan here, a piece of wood there) to maneuver around, while Rocky and Alex are running scared. In the darkness their eyes are wide with fright.
Stephen Lang is perhaps better known for his stage work, but might be recognised for his role in Avatar (2009). His role in Don’t Breathe is certainly a delicate one: his clouded eyes and tense shoulders make him look haunted, and as his backstory unravels, they become representative of the monster he is.
Jane Levy is the perfect counterpart to Lang. When his character is horrific, she is horrified. Ultimately, Don’t Breathe is a battle of wits between Rocky and the veteran, with the audience backing Rocky. Her desire for the better life for herself and her sister urges her forward, much to the dismay of Alex.
‘Rocky. The door’s right fucking there. We can leave right now.’
In the moment where she could leave, Rocky stays and shows herself to be a moralistic person worthy of the audience’s respect. As the movie progresses, the blind veteran falls further from the idealised picture of the victimised elderly man, and becomes a villain in his own right.
‘There’s nothing a man cannot do when he accepts the fact that there is no God.’
What is most interesting about Don’t Breathe is the power balance between the two opposing forces. It is a fresh take on the prototypical horror movie, in which the death of the protagonist is a foregone conclusion.