Tuesday, 13 September 2016

Don't Breathe

In a year in which potential is the worst thing a film can have, Don't Breathe is more than just a breath of fresh air, it's a whole bloody tanker of it. Already this year we've had a plethora of films that completely botch their potential. Suicide Squad should have been DC's game changing feature, but instead it fell victim to all the same missteps as everything that came before. Sausage Party should have been a brilliantly funny little film with a touch of social commentary at its core, but instead it lost sight of all it should have been in favour of sex jokes and innuendos. Nerve, while by far the best of the bunch if only for sheer enjoyment, still failed to really capitalise on all the potential that its brilliantly inventive premise allowed it. So, here we have Don't Breathe, the second feature from Fede Alvarez, who helmed 2013's wacky but fun Evil Dead remake. The film's trailers set up a fast paced, deliriously intense film that wanted little more than to shake audiences to their very core. So what a delight it is, then, to report that the film not only does this perfectly, but actually winds up as one of the strongest films of the summer, if not the whole year.

One of Don't Breathe's biggest assets is its simplicity. Rocky (Jane Levy) longs for a better life for her and her sister, away from their abusive mother. Her and two friends, Alex (Dylan Minnette) and Money (Daniel Zovatto), frequently rob houses that Alex's dad provides security for. When Money gets wind of an old Army veteran (Stephen Lang) who has at least $300,000 in his house, the three agree to make him their final target and split the money between them. Before they burgle the house, they realise the man is blind, and decide instead to rob his house overnight that night. The burglary goes wrong, though, and the blind man realises the three of them are in his house, trapping them inside. It's not the most original premise in the world - when you strip the film of its "blind man" gimmick, it's essentially just a home invasion movie - but Alvarez has put a brilliantly fresh twist on a somewhat stale subgenre, and Don't Breathe benefits from it. The pace is quick, the performances are good, the cinematography is superb, and it all amounts to a level of intensity unlike anything else 2016 has to offer.

Most of this comes down purely to how inventive Alvarez' direction is. He repeatedly finds new and exciting ways to create tension, and the jolts and jumps just keep on coming. When we first enter the house, Alvarez glides his camera around every nook and cranny, briefly focusing on a number of key locations and dangerous objects (a skylight, a hammer, a gun under the bed), and takes us on a tour of the entire house in one smoothly stitched together shot. It's a brilliant move, accomplishing a number of things at once. It foreshadows later moments so that weapons don't appear to come out of nowhere, it familiarises us with the location so that we always know how far characters are from each other in moments of peril, but most importantly it portrays the location as little more than a home. There are photos on mantlepieces, shoes by the backdoor. It works in setting up the blind man as a sympathetic character, making the viewer question whose side they are on when the whole thing inevitably goes awry. Alvarez frequently plays tricks with his audience, forcing us to jump between sides, never sure of who our support lies with. It's brilliantly executed, as I found myself hopping between support for Rocky to sympathy for the blind man to finding Alex the only character of reason and so on. The film never holds its characters and their motives in one place for too long, the whole thing moves like a bullet and it's exhilarating.

Once things take a turn, though, and the blind man becomes aware of their presence in the house, Don't Breathe becomes something else entirely. The film is almost unapologetically intense, every time you feel as if it's going to give you a break it somehow ramps the tension to even higher levels. Whereas most films rely on individual set pieces to create tension, Don't Breathe abandons this, turning the entire film into a set piece of its own. Alvarez relies heavily on jump scares from the offset, but each and every one is fully earned. They're completely impossible to predict, and masterfully executed. It's tough to understand that this is just Alvarez' second feature: he has crafted a thriller film, here, but with such a breathtaking understanding of how to incorporate horror elements into his story. As Rocky and Alex create a plan to escape, they walk towards the basement door only for it to swing open as the blind man comes into the room from behind it. The jump alone is worth admission price, but what makes every jump so effective is the fact that the moment doesn't end there. The door slams open, but this forces Rocky and Alex to stand sill, in perfect silence. They stop breathing, so do we. You leap out of your seat the second the door moves, but you cower back into it in anticipation of what might come next. It's one of the most impressive moments of thrilling filmmaking all year, and it's just one of countless moments like it that the film offers. When Alvarez plunges the frame into pitch black darkness in the middle act, you'll swear under your breath more times than you can count.

The fact that the film is also willing to push the boundaries a bit and head into darker territory in its final act is also refreshing. In an age where political correctness and normality is so favoured, anything that dares to get a bit weird is good in my books (hence my complete adoration for The Neon Demon). Don't Breathe definitely heads towards the weird with a game changing reveal at the end of the second act, and it leads to a moment so darkly horrific that I had to turn away, as did many others around me. The fact that this sequence ends with a moment of pretty grim humour is also impressive, as it nails this too. There may be little quibbles along the way - it's hardly the most compelling case for character development, and when daylight pours back into the frame near the climax the film shows its first signs of being unsure of itself - but with a film this thrilling in the moment, it's seriously tough to complain. I cannot remember the last time I left a cinema still physically shaking, or the last time I had to turn away from the screen due to something so horrific, or the last time I experienced moments of horror so intense that everyone in the theatre was silenced, or the last time a film made me swear under my breath so frequently in such a short space of time. Don't Breathe is a film that knows exactly what it wants to be, and perfectly nails it all. You might think this is pretty standard but, in 2016, it's almost revelatory.

To Summarise: Dark, twisted and thrilling to almost unprecedented levels, Don't Breathe takes an ingeniously simple concept and works it into a masterclass in unrelenting tension, showcasing Fede Alvarez as one of the most exciting genre directors today.

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