Sunday, September 11, 2016

Don’t Breathe

Life in Michigan is so shit for twenty-somethings Rocky (Jane Levy), Money (Daniel Zovatto) and Alex (Dylan Minette) that they embark upon a series of house robberies in order to fund their relocation to, and standard of living in, California. Or least, life is shit enough for Rocky to risk it all for a way out – her mother’s the personification of white trash, her step-father-in-waiting sports swastika tattoos, and her prepubescent sister (or maybe stepsister) is looking at another decade of deprivation if Rocky doesn’t make something happen.

Is life shit for Money? Who knows? He’s what a filmmaker bordering on his forties thinks a millennial in thrall to the thug life acts like. He postures and seems to enjoy criminality and thinks he’s a big man for packing a gun. He refers to said item as “chrome”. That’s all you really need to know about Money. That and the fact that he calls himself “Money”.

Is life shit for Alex? Not really. His dad owns a financially successful home security business that, with a modicum of application and self-discipline, he could be running himself in a decade’s time. But wait, Alex is hung up on Rocky even though she’s Money’s girl (I was a little bit sick in my mouth just typing that sentence), and therefore he risks the most, ripping off the spare keys and alarm codes to various moneyed homesteads.

The heists this threesome pull follow the same pattern: they let themselves in with the spare key, deprogram the alarm, steal enough in saleable goods (never cash) that if they’re caught it’ll be a misdemeanour rather than serious jail time, let themselves out, then hurl a stone through the window to trigger the alarm (thus drawing attention away from Alex’s father’s company) as they make their getaway.

So far so good. At least Rocky has been given motivation and a reason to risk it all. Granted, there’s not quite enough frisson between them to justify Alex’s infatuation, but Levy is an attractive and charismatic enough presence that you can believe he’d carry a torch. Still, Alex of all of them has the most to lose and takes the biggest risk for the smallest yield, so already the film strains credulity purely it needs to explain how these tweenie-robbers can bypass alarm codes.

(Seriously, all Alex needs to do is wait till Money gets hauled off to jail – he’s stupid enough for said outcome to be a foregone conclusion – get her hired at his old man’s firm, put a deposit on a place of their own and be a good uncle to Rocky’s baby sis and it’s happy ever after.)

But this is the kind of movie in which the characters are smart and resourceful when the script needs them to evade a particular situation and utterly fucking stupid when the script needs them to get caught. And everything in ‘Don’t Breathe’ develops because the script requires it rather than as a result of decisions made by characters who are, y’know, acting in character.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. After an archetypal robbery from which our so-called heroes get away clean, director Fede Alvarez and his co-writer Rodo Sayagues, establish the set up with commendable efficiency: in a depressed area of town, where virtually every property in the immediate vicinity stands empty, a Gulf War veteran, blinded during said conflict, lives in hermit-like solitude. He also stubbornly remains in an economically depressed urban wasteland when the out-of-court settlement from the rich family whose scion his daughter in a drink driving accident has swelled his personal wealth to the tune of almost half a million. A sum that he keeps, in cash, on the premises.

Money, pissed off with fencing the proceeds from previous jobs at a 60% loss on their street value, gets a tip off re: the blind man. Yup, Stephen Lang’s terrifying and brilliantly portrayed character isn’t even given a name. Alex is concerned that it’s a heist too far, but at the risk of losing contact with Rocky acquiesces. The trio wait till after dark, drug the blind man’s dog and break in. Things go south PDQ.

For an all-too-short while, ‘Don’t Breathe’ offers the unalloyed pleasure of a handicapped but still brutally efficient military professional putting every bit of his training, tradecraft and expertise to the test in order to outwit and viciously repel his attackers. Had ‘Don’t Breathe’ continued in this vein – robbers who aren’t necessarily the bad guys suddenly finding themselves targeted by a homeowner who isn’t necessarily the victim – it could have been the subversive genre-redefining home invasion thriller of its time.

As it is, Alvarez throws in a plot twist that dimps the first of several plot holes in the fabric of the film. It’s pretty effective when you’re sitting there in a darkened cinema and everyone else in the auditorium has gasped, but after a moment or two’s reflection it throws up too many unanswered questions. Yes, I can dig that a guy who’s lost his sight would use certain aspects of his military training to overcome his disability; that he’d still have lightning-fast reflexes; and that he’d know the layout of his house down to the last inch of crawlspace. But the big secret his house is hiding … now, that’s entirely different set of logistics. And surely there would have been a police investigation and given his relationship to … But to say anymore would necessitate spoilers.

Which I’m sorely tempted to throw out, because it’s this aspect of the film that transitions ‘Don’t Breathe’ from tense-as-all-hell cat-and-mouse thriller into grubbier territory. As Rocky is separated from her companions, the woman-in-peril scenario takes on a luridly sexual implication. Thereafter, false escapes and recaptures pile up alongside back-from-the-dead moments at a pace frenetic enough to strain credulity even further, not to mention Lang’s visually-challenged antagonist seeming to morph from ruthlessly proficient but still blind ex-soldier treating his home as a battleground, to a fifty-something Michael Myers popping up out of nowhere for maximum scare effective and never mind whether it was physically possible for him to get from location A to location B in anything like the time implied.

Throw on top of this a scene that Alvarez and Sayagues concocted purely for the gross-out factor and its painfully clear that they weren’t confident about being able to sustain suspension and tension for the film’s 89-minute running time and compensated with juvenile torture porn tropes. Which is a damned shame, since ‘Don’t Breathe’ works beautifully as an exercise in tension, with some exemplary sound work. The house is a brilliant creation, and the performances range from decent to very good, with Lang and Levy taking top honours. With its misconceived subplot snipped out and the running time reduced to 75 minutes, it would have been a nerve-shredder of the highest order.

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