‘Don’t Breathe’ (2016) | SXSW Review

It’s not easy to build tension. Revealing a new piece of information that adds to what we already know rather than toss it out the window is a narrow distinction and can make or break your movie. One twist slightly off-center tonally could collapse the entire house of cards. Fede Alvarez, who brought us the unfortunately overlooked Evil Dead revamp, succeeds mightily in building tension in his latest effort Don’t Breathe and sustains it through a seat-squirming, breath-holding second act. Unfortunately, the third act lets go off the reigns a tiny bit to where scary and silly can be more interchangeable. Even still, that third act is filled with more good than bad to prove Alvarez is a man in control of where he wants to lead his audience, even if where he leads us is terrifying.

Alex (Dylan Minnette) is the son of a home security provider in Detroit. He, his crush Rocky (Jane Levy), and her boyfriend Money (Daniel Zovatto), to make some extra cash, use Alex’s dad’s security connections to break into people’s homes and steal their valuables, never having to worry about alarms or locked doors. Rocky’s goal is to get out of Detroit and head out to Los Angeles, and to do that, the three embark on one final score for their biggest prize yet, six figures in cash from a blind military vet (Stephen Lang) with a recently deceased daughter. This was not the person they should’ve robbed.

The cat and mouse game that ensues in this man’s house is utter terror. When the slightest noise could mean bullets flying, you in the audience don’t even want to make a noise out of fear. Alvarez can milk the suspense for all its worth when Rocky or Alex is standing just a few feet from the man, trying their hardest not to make themselves heard. Lang stoically scanning the room with his ears is frightening, never being able to read what his next move will be. We also early on are treated to a virtuoso one-take that flies us around the entire house, highlighting the geography of every room and the placement of items we’ll definitely be seeing later. When we know a character just has to get to the next room undetected to grab something, that trek becomes so daunting.

The strength of the movie comes almost entirely from its tension-building power and its three principal actors. Levy and Minnette have a great chemistry, even if the foundation of their relationship is not really in the material. It’s placed on their shoulders to make this friendship work, and they do. Levy, in particular, proves once again why she should be a superstar, as she did in Alvarez’s Evil Dead. Lang as the movie’s boogeyman is properly scary, and the more we learn about him, the more you dread what could happen.

At a certain point, though, it does get slightly comical that these people can’t get out of the house, and the added threat of a dog does not do that any favors. The dog is one obstacle too many and had me thinking, “C’mon… Really?” The biggest instance of where I was snickering instead of holding my breath involved glass slowly breaking. I won’t say more than that, to not spoil what happens. The third act does take some big, horrific chances that do work, though, ultimately evening it out.

Regardless of its minor foibles, Don’t Breathe passes with flying colors as a pure adrenaline rush of suspense. You never know what will happen next or who will make it out alive. Yeah, the characters aren’t the most fleshed out, and the drama is somewhat lacking. It didn’t matter. Fede Alvarez with sheer filmmaking prowess makes a thriller Hitchcock would admire.

GRADE: B+

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