Movie Review: ‘DON’T BREATHE’ turns a blind eye to character and dialogue

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Preston Barta // Features Editor

DON’T BREATHE | 88 min | R
Director: Fede Alvarez
Cast: Stephen Lang, Jane Levy, Dylan Minnette and Daniel Zovatto

Thrillers thrive on simplicity. The notion that danger lurks behind even the most benign and harmless face can easily lead to rewarding results.

Fede Alvarez’s latest film, DON’T BREATHE, promises all of this and more.

As seen in its well-crafted trailer, there are moments that make you hold fast and cover your mouth, much like the main character does on the film’s poster.

There is more to a thriller than its premise, however — the characters must be believable, the dialogue smooth and at least unobtrusive, and the drama must be present. Unfortunately, the occasionally captivating DON’T BREATHE loses sight of these necessities.

The story centers on three small-time crooks (Jane Levy, Dylan Minnette and Daniel Zovatto) who make their living by robbing the high-end houses of Detroit. Looking to drive out of the Motor City and into the sunny dream life of California, the trio gets the bright idea of stealing a large stockpile of cash from a blind, elderly man (an unhinged Stephen Lang). But what at first seems like an easy score winds up going south fast.

The three quickly discover the blind man is a ruthless ex-military killing machine who doesn’t take too kindly to ill-advised criminals getting in the way of his mysterious agenda.

Alvarez, who directed the 2013 remake of EVIL DEAD, repeats many of his previous mistakes with DON’T BREATHE. EVIL DEAD undoubtedly looked the part of a horror film: It updated the cheesy, low-budget effects of the original 1981 film, added sweeping camera movements and a darkly rich color palette. But movies are as much a storytelling medium as a visual one.

Jane Levy stars in the horror-thriller DON'T BREATHE as Rocky. Photo courtesy of Sony Pictures Releasing.

Jane Levy stars in the horror-thriller DON’T BREATHE as Rocky. Photo courtesy of Sony Pictures Releasing.

The characters are, for the most part, what you’ve come to anticipate from a home invasion film, especially if you’ve seen PANIC ROOM. Aside from Lang’s menacing turn as the blind man, they fade into unmemorable obscurity.

Alex (Minnette) has the keys to the kingdom, literally. His father is a security company employee, which leaves Alex and his crew with an all-access pass to indulge in the lifestyles of the rich and famous.

Then you have Alex’s partners, Money (Zovatto) and Rocky (Levy). Rocky wants to escape her life for a new one with her daughter (Emma Bercovici), while Money is a your stereotypical street thug who likes to say words like “bro” on repeat, to our displeasure. (He even sports some cornrows like Jared Leto’s character in PANIC ROOM.)

While not the best screenwriter, Alvarez knows how to properly build tension. There are even a few striking moments that are among the best seen in thrillers in some time. Because of that, it’s hard to completely knock this film for being a recycled bag of tricks.

As the film primarily takes place in one location, Alvarez expertly creates a sense of space, drawing the audience into his set. This is especially apparent during the trio’s first encounter with the blind man, where he sticks a gun out into the free space and all the characters can do is hold their breathe (cue the title).

There are, of course, times during DON’T BREATHE where you want to shout advice at the screen, but the film just as frequently shows that the characters are two steps ahead. It’s an unbalanced film, but it gets you from point A to point B, even if point B is rather disturbing and hard to endure. But it’s a thriller, right?

Grade: B-

DON’T BREATHE opens nationwide on Friday, August 26.

About author

Preston Barta

I have been working as a film journalist since 2010, dividing the first four years between radio broadcasting and entertainment writing in the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex. In 2014, I entered Fresh Fiction (FreshFiction.tv) as the features editor. The following year, I stepped into the film critic position at the Denton Record-Chronicle, a daily North Texas print publication. My time is dedicated to writing theatrical film reviews, at-home entertainment columns, and conducting interviews with on-screen talent and filmmakers, as well as hosting a podcast devoted to genre filmmaking (called My Bloody Podcast). I've been married for seven happy years, and I have one son who is all about dinosaurs just like his dad.