A film that turns the storyline a whole 180 degrees by the first half and confuses the audience about who the villain is and whom to root for would be the apt description for this gritty, suffocating thriller. ‘Don’t Breathe’ strangles us into the clutches of a narrative that is barb-wired with sequences exploring the depth of human pain threshold – both of the ‘characters’ on screen and those watching. It will remind any overly vigorous teenager inclined to a life of crime to rethink on their ‘momentary adventurous thoughts’ by ruthlessly showing what exactly can go wrong when dealing with the ‘unknown’. Without a doubt, Don’t Breathe is a revelation – reinventing the ‘Panic Room’ category of films and delivering a well crafted portentous plot that strews the screen with gasps, bruises, and gunshots.
Painted against a desolate Detroit neighborhood, ‘Don’t Breathe’ slides into the lives of three teenage brats looking forward to petty thefts in and around their town. Alex, played by Dylan Minnette is probably the only one with a bit of sensible conscience. Caught up in a one-sided romantic fling, Alex chases Rocky, played by Jane Levy, with concerned looks and protective gestures. Although Jane doesn’t despise Alex, she never shows the same momentum.
The third member, the one who doesn’t care much about moral baggage in everyday activities, is Money (Daniel Zovatto). Alex is seen succumbing to Money’s loud natured bullying and insensitive remarks on his feelings for Jane. Alex gathers information about houses where people are out-of-town from his father’s security company and leads his delinquent friends to sweep it clean of anything they find that falls into their liking. The film opens on one such scenario where we catch the three stealing from what looks like a splendid mansion. After the successful robbery, they sell the stolen items to a middleman who refuses to pay the rightful amount for the goods. The trio decides to look for their next house for one last heist to raise enough money for leaving the town. Money locates a blind US army special forces veteran, living alone in his house with close to 300000$ in cash. It is also made clear that the man received the money as a settlement when his daughter met with a car accident.
The same night the trio reaches the man’s house and drugs his dog before finding a way in. With most of the entrances locked, Rocky finds a small window and makes her way in. She opens the back door and lets the other two join her. Money walks upstairs and locates the veteran who is seen sleeping with the television playing a video of his daughter. Money leaves a bottle oozing with sleeping gas under the man’s bed. The three then start looking for the money. Assuming that Money is behind ‘the locked door’ on the ground floor, Money fires the gun to unlock it. This wakes up the blind old man. He gets a firm grip on money while Rocky watches. Money tells the man that he is alone to which the old man responds with a kill shot. Alex and Money realize the mess they are in. Rocky sees the old man entering where she is hiding and opening a safe box. She seizes the opportunity to steal the money as soon as the man leaves the room. The veteran later sees a pair of shoes belonging to Rocky and realizes there are more strangers lurking around in his house.
Alex and Rocky, desperate to find their way out make themselves to the basement. There they see a young woman tied to chains in a padded cell. The woman’s miserable condition finds a relief when Alex and Rocky help her out of the chains. She shows them a newspaper clipping from which Alex and Rocky understand that she is Cindy Roberts, played by Franciska Torocsik, who is the wealthy young teenager who ran over the old man’s daughter killing her. Alex and Rocky help Cindy to reach the cellar where they confront the old man again as he fires without warning. The bullet hits Cindy as she falls down dead. Alex and Rocky hide in the cellar as the old man holds the lifeless body of Cindy and cries, ‘My Baby’. With raging anger, the old man switches off the lights in the cellar. Alex and Rocky, now blind like their hunter, stumble on to the upper floor.
Rocky and Alex are now faced with even more terror – the blind man’s dog. It is awake and chases Alex out of the room on to the skylight. When he wakes up, the old man shoots at the skylight and tortures Alex. Rocky finds her way into the vents but is chased by the dog until she falls down through. When she wakes up, she finds herself tied to the chains like Cindy. The veteran explains to her that Cindy was bearing him a child to replace his daughter. He then gets ready to artificially inseminate Rocky when Alex appears suddenly overpowering the old man, handcuffing him. Rocky and Alex then escape through the front door. The blind man gets out of the handcuffs and shoots Alex. Alex dies while the blind man’s dog runs after Rocky. She hides inside a car and manages to trap the dog in the trunk. But she is once again caught by the old man who drags her along the street to his house. There she sets off the fire alarm to disorient the old man and repeatedly hits him with a crowbar. Rocky pushes him to the basement, and we hear a gunshot. Rocky escapes with the money. Rocky is then seen leaving on a train with her younger sister Didy. She finds a news report about the incident and realizes that the old man is not dead. She also hears the report stating that there were only two intruders killed in self-defense omitting Rocky’s presence. Knowing that the man consciously did not report about her or the money Rocky leaves not knowing about the veteran’s plans for her.
The Blind Terror
Stephen Lang may now be synonymous with monstrosity, thanks to the makers of ‘Don’t Breathe’. Lang’s role in transforming a low budget horror thriller to a dread-inducing shock ride deserves honorable mention. Playing the muscular, ruthless and criminally sadistic Blind Man, Lang amuses us by sending chilly waves up our spines from the moment he appears at the doorway. Projecting a rather diabolical disposition the old man’s fingers finds joy in pulling the trigger of his pistol firing a bullet that bleeds complete remorselessness. Blessed with a heightened sense of hearing, the old man also has an immense amount of physical power. If there was a medical test to analyze levels of malign emotions running in one’s neurons, then in this man’s case the report will test positive for psychotic vengeance and melancholic morbidness. Stephen Lang proves he is the man for the job, making blindness look like a mere façade he deviously makes use of to get a quick upper hand at understanding the geography of his home, making the interlopers suffocate in the unfamiliar turf they chose for their little adventure.
Lang’s character may not surprise us initially, but his transformation is almost lupine-like. His body and posture may have played lesser roles in establishing his devilishness, but the eyes are what played a crucial part. His eyes look like that of a snake’s, layered by a thick transparent covering that looks greenish. Even if we get to locate the pupils at times, it only adds to the creepiness. The death in his eyes manifests a frozen conscience that cannot distinguish between good and evil or love and hate. With his gaze locked perpetually at different things, the man comes across as a body possessed by some form of an evil entity using his physicality to spill blood gleefully.
The claustrophobic narrative
Horror proliferates aggressively whenever space is limited. Thriving on this long-used format, ‘Don’t Breathe’ takes it a notch up using the Blind Man’s house to unleash hell. Exploring tiny spaces like vents and cellars, the screenplay has patina after patina of strategic space reduction executed meticulously. A genius move by the creators is when the blind man switches off the lights in the cellar. This plunges Alex and Rocky into complete darkness. This is a ‘death call’ from the ‘one without eyes’, welcoming his prey to his world where light is a foe. A move that further confined the characters from figuring an escape route. With no tool of distraction in sight, Alex and Rocky walks on the tension coiled strands from our entertainment – thirsty brain cells, poking us at times with narrative shafts of hair-raising suspense.
‘Don’t Breathe’ blows a fresh breath of ‘innovative horror’ into us. It starts off as a generic horror flick where the limitations are conspicuous but surpasses them with creative tactics that are electrifyingly innovative. Rocky’s character alone, once trapped in the ‘freak house’, feels like a sheep hiding in the wolf’s lair. Initially painting her as an irresponsible teen who runs on aspirations of becoming rich somehow, her brat like approach to life is quickly mitigated and forgotten in front of the Old Man’s bloodthirsty fortitude. We almost feel sorry for her having to face ‘horrors’ that are too terrifying than she deserves. The intelligent manner with which the Old Man’s character is constructed to make it appear like the unfortunate thieves are wrapped inside his blanket of torturous surprises is a pure spectacle to watch. The old man who cannot see intimidates with the magnitude of a state of the art motion sensor. The dilapidated house and its inhabitant spreads a crawling sense of fear spreading it across to the viewers who may never walk alone on a street that has a scarcity of ‘life’.
The ‘Turkey Baster’ scene
The most controversial moment in the film is, of course, the ‘impregnation scene’. The Blind Man covets to have another baby. Collecting his semen in a turkey baster, he impregnates his victim with the justification that he is at least not doing by forcing himself on her. When Rocky wakes up in a harness in the basement, the scene slowly warns us of a perverted mist about to blanket it. The immediate reveal of the man carrying his own ‘offspring generating’ fluid in a ‘turkey baster’ of all things, makes our gut turn upside down for a few seconds. The sequence is choreographed to look like it is a mundane activity. And that is what makes it even more creepy.
With the casualness of administering the first aid to someone with a minor injury, the Blind Man effortlessly rips Rocky’s trousers. The scene definitely triggers us but to what extent will depend on your threshold for goriness. Suspended from the ceiling and subjected to a gruesome act as shown, one can say that the screenwriters have pushed themselves to bring us the zenith of visual horrors on screen. A single scene which makes us take a complete perspective shift on the insanity that has clouded Lang’s character. An impactful visual narration that is designed to look simply effortless yet latches on to us like a strand of pure dread.
The ending of ‘Don’t Breathe’ is comparable to a ‘deer in the lion trap’ situation. It is already bad that the deer has its legs crumpled in the metal but to add to it, an actual lion is prowling behind to rip it apart. The Blind Man’s animalistic flair of torturous tactics is bumped up further when he tries to impregnate Rocky. The climactic reveal where the old man etches a gritty definition for himself which may go something like, ‘The one with more grime in his soul than the sewers of the world combined’, plunges our conscience into the deepest caverns of emotional filth. We slowly get a taste of what lies in the extreme opposite of ‘enlightenment’ – a mind that is clogged with clouds of vengeful brutality. Even if Rocky manages to escape, we clearly get to sense that the Blind Man has scarred her for life, gifting her with a life where she may never spare empathy for the disabled or aid the ones coiled in solitude.
The Blind Man’s thorny whip ornate with trauma will forever be latched on to Rocky after her misadventure. She might confidently lead on, dream about a better tomorrow and convince herself that the light ahead is getting brighter, but the perpetual lingering far behind the darkest corners of her mind will forever have the sightless man’s glinting eyes plundering her from the inside. The director invents a new way to test the human threshold for emotional trauma with ‘Don’t Breathe’. Like a ‘Pit-bull raised in a crack house’, the film will have its gaze charging on us even if we try to bury it in the barrage of horror flicks releasing every year. When fantasy films like Harry Potter hailed their motto ‘Draco Dormiens Nunquam Titillandus’ which means ‘Never tickle a sleeping dragon’, ‘Don’t Breath’s’ suggestion for the horror genre would be something like, ‘Do not wake a sleeping blind man’.
Don’t Breathe may not achieve the higher echelons of a path-breaking movie but definitely has found a strong footing in the carousel of horror flicks. Charging in on us with its electrifying sequences of dread, ‘Don’t Breathe’ has earned for itself the title of ‘The most recommendable horror flick of 2016’ in my opinion. As the title suggests with a premise where even breathing can trigger unseen danger to prowl upon you, ‘Don’t Breathe’s’ is, in fact, begging for a sequel. Let’s all muster the courage to confront a follow up soon!