Signposts: “Don’t Breathe” (2016)
(Signposts is an ongoing Loud Green Bird series that explores the antecedents of noteworthy – and not-so-noteworthy – films. Tropes and sensitive plot information will be discussed. My recommendation is to view the film before reading.)
In the wake of 2013’s commercially successful remake of Evil Dead, director Fede Alvarez returns to the horror genre in a different capacity with the unconventional home-invasion flick, Don’t Breathe. A trio of twentysomethings on a burglary spree through Detroit’s upscale neighborhoods think they’ve found an easy mark in a blind military veteran living alone in a deserted suburban block. They’re caught off-guard, however, when the B&E becomes a fight for survival.
The Bling Ring (2013)
Sofia Coppola’s film presents the economic inverse of Alvarez’s: unlike the financially desperate characters of Don’t Breathe, the rich Hollywood teens here get their thrills by robbing celebrities dumb enough to leave their doors open (literally). In The Bling Ring, a sense of privilege and entitlement pervades, to the point where the delusion of the teens feeds into a sociopathic view of “normality.” Don’t Breathe, by contrast, presents an ambiguous perspective on heroism and villainy, with the group’s actions informed by a desire to escape unfavorable economic circumstances.
As a bit of genre convention that also reflects real life, it makes sense that The Blind Man (Stephen Lang) owns a dog in Don’t Breathe. It’s also inevitable that said dog will attack – and maybe kill – at least one of our thieving trio. Perhaps less expected is Rocky’s (Jane Levy) encounter with the animal whilst trapped in a car she doesn’t have the keys to, which begins with visual nods to Lewis Teague’s adaptation of Stephen King’s Cujo, but concludes in an unconventional way. It’s a claustrophobic sequence shot with the type of nerve-racking close-ups cinematographer (and future Speed director) Jan de Bont employed in Teague’s film.
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2011)
I could cite I Spit on Your Grave (either version) or Ms. 45, but truth be told, the rape in Don’t Breathe is more unconventional than those films (at least, insofar as the dubious aesthetic in which cinematic rape can be considered “conventional”). And while the rape itself isn’t seen to fruition, the intent remains (despite The Blind Man’s claim that he’s never “forced himself on a woman”), and that’s enough to make the scenario properly horrifying. What aligns Don’t Breathe with David Fincher’s adaptation of Stieg Larsson’s bestseller (an adaptation far superior to its Swedish counterpart) is the odd pulley-and-suspension rig The Blind Man uses to keep captives bound in his soundproof basement. In Dragon Tattoo, journalist Mikael Blomkvist (Daniel Craig) is made to wear a similar contraption, but it is occurring in the basement where Martin Vanger (Stellan Skarsgard) has tortured and murdered countless other girls. While Rocky is rescued before The Blind Man’s bizarre form of sexual violation can be completed, she earns the right to wail on him ruthlessly with a crowbar, not unlike Lisbeth Salander’s (Rooney Mara) torture of the social-services pervert who violated her repeatedly.
Green Room (2015)
While epic-scale ensemble pieces from the Marvel and DC Universes continue to dominate the U.S. box office, 2016 has also seen an intriguing resurgence of stripped-down suspense-horror that utilizes limited locations and small casts. Like Green Room, Don’t Breathe is one of the most intense, visceral cinematic experiences of the year – watch them both back-to-back for a guaranteed heart attack. But their commonalities extend beyond their kindred-spirit tension-building tactics. At the beginning of Green Room, our dirt-poor, down-and-out punk band considers cutting their unsuccessful “small town America” tour short, but are swayed by the promise of a decent payout by playing at a dubious venue. In Don’t Breathe, one of our dirt-poor characters, tired of selling stolen items to a middleman, takes a fateful tip that leads the trio to The Blind Man’s home.
It bears noting that both films are lean in terms of storytelling, character setup, and establishing conflict within the first few minutes. We get just a taste of everyone’s circumstances; enough to establish sympathy when events shift to life and death, and the pace rarely allows the audience room to, well, breathe. In providing such wrought experiences, Green Room and Don’t Breathe deliver on the intensity most Hollywood films are sorely lacking.
Mike Flanagan’s Hush is a sleeper, but in addition to its limited, isolated location (a house in the woods) and a to-the-point run time (81 minutes, with credits), it also shares an interesting commonality with Don’t Breathe: it’s an experience in sensory horror that asks us to follow resourceful deaf-mute Maddie (Kate Siegel) as she’s terrorized by a killer (John Gallagher, Jr.). While The Blind Man turns into a multifaceted character, he is suspended in a gray moral area that makes him more than the sum of his description. In Hush, the killer’s lack of development and motive turns Maddie into the unambiguous hero of the piece, making a virtue of her vocal and aural handicap. Hush is another film that would make a fine double feature with Don’t Breathe, as hero and villain alike underestimate the potential of “limited” adversaries.
It Follows (2014)
David Robert Mitchell’s Detroit-based horror flick captures the socioeconomic divide between middle-class suburbs and the impoverished “8 Mile” section of the city. Alvarez’s camera is more fluid and showy (albeit in subtle ways) than Mitchell’s, but both filmmakers capture the economic desperation perfectly in their depictions of cracked sidewalks, abandoned homes, lots overgrown with weeds, and looming brick buildings tagged with graffiti.
Panic Room (2002)
David Fincher’s Panic Room turned a confined setting into a critical and financial success, influencing a new generation of filmmakers looking to do a lot with a little. In addition to the robbery-gone-awry premise and the limited cast, Alvarez goes out of his way to imbue one of his junior thieves, Money (Daniel Zovatto) with the same cornrows, fidgety tics, and trigger-happy demeanor of Junior (Jared Leto) in Panic Room. In Don’t Breathe, a brilliant early tracking shot – gliding over a door’s padlock; pushing against a wall of tools; disappearing between floors and ceilings – is pure Fincher, disclosing all the information the viewer needs, but not how the lock and tools (among other things) will be employed as the film progresses.
The Silence of the Lambs (1991)
Another sequence in Don’t Breathe that could stem from multiple sources is a basement blackout that puts Rocky and Alex (Dylan Minnette) at a disadvantage against The Blind Man. There is an odd, negative-exposure quality to this shot-in-grayscale sequence, with the characters’ pupils dilated to a cartoonish degree (if anybody knows what this technique is, let me know). The sequence recalls – with great skill – The Silence of the Lambs, and Clarice Starling’s (Jodie Foster) final confrontation with serial killer Buffalo Bill (Ted Levine) in his labyrinthine, bowels-of-hell basement. Rocky and Alex “fly blind,” relying on sensory information in the same way Clarice does, waving and feeling their way through an unfamiliar landscape. While director Jonathan Demme takes the villain’s POV for this sequence, the unraveling ambiguities of character in Don’t Breathe lead Alvarez to shoot and edit in a manner that adheres more to conventional suspense-thriller aesthetics, while still delivering unpredictability and terror.
(If you’ve made it this far, you’ve probably already seen Don’t Breathe. Regardless, I am going to abstain from posting the trailer, as it spoils more than a few plot developments.)