I was not a fan of Fede Alvarez’s Evil Dead, for which I didn’t necessarily blame Alvarez. While I feel like too many horror fans gave the film a passing grade simply for the virtue of its not being directed by Marcus Nispel, the film felt more than anything else like a set of strong elements that failed to cohere. Alvarez obviously had talent and there was no reason that he couldn’t make something legitimately good on the next go round.
Unfortunately Don’t Breathe, is another mixture of promise and profound miscalculation. Though you’ll forgive me for feeling decidedly less rosy about Alvarez’s potential than after his first at bat. Truth in criticism forces me to say there are some good beats here, a dog attack in a cramped car that’s very effective (and if nothing else, if Alvarez wants to take another crack at Cujo consider my ticket purchased), a gag involving a splintering pane of glass that climaxes with a decent jump scare, Stephen Lang is as always a formidable physical presence, and Alvarez shoots him well. But this is the sort of review where I lead with the good just to get it out of the way.
Don’t Breathe follows three home invaders who break into a blind man’s house in an attempt to steal the money the man received as a settlement for his daughter’s death. Our heroes, everyone. The structural flaws of the film mostly rest on these three load-bearing poles; the douchey gangster named Money (who has a prominent dollar sign tattooed on his neck in-case the name was too subtle for you), the cipher Nice Guy TM, and the one that Alvarez practically twists your arm to try to make sympathetic. Of course the movie eventually reveals that there’s something hinky going on with the blind dude with the fortified house, whose every appearance is marked with a jackbooted musical stinger (if nothing else Don’t Breathe reveals Alvarez to be an almost alarmingly unsubtle filmmaker). Yes, before you can say The People Under The Stairs there are people discovered under them stairs.
As mentioned a few scenes show evidence that Alvarez has chops as a director but not so many as you would think. For every scene or shot like the above mentioned there are three or four, like the long take that kicks off the home invasion, one that is almost comical in its lack of thematic or narrative purpose and inability to generate tension. It becomes nothing more than a dull game of “spot the exposition” as though Alvarez was jogging behind the camera whispering, “This will be important later guys.” The film takes place in Detroit and tries to generate some atmosphere from America’s favorite symbol of hubris and bygone glory, but after It Follows and Only Lovers Left Alive (not to mention Lauren Beuke’s excellent Broken Monsters) it feels awfully ersatz.
If Alvarez is uneven as a director, he is hopeless as a writer. Don’t Breathe is the type of movie that doesn’t trust you to understand that the protagonist’s family is bad just because they extort her and make crude blow job jokes. The mother’s ex-con boyfriend has to have a swastika tattoo just in case you weren’t sure. Given that Alvarez scripts with all the subtlety of a claw hammer through the eye, the decision late in the film to try and exploit some real world tragedy is what eventually tipped the film past the point of insufferable and into the realms of the genuinely distasteful. At the point where said revelations occur, and you will know them if you are unlucky enough to see Don’t Breathe, waves of contempt began to roll off me and I disengaged from the film as powerfully as I ever have.
Fede Alvarez still has his moments, but if he’s not careful that’s all he’ll ever have.