A philosophic question: When a filmmaker shows terrific skill for two thirds of a movie, then descends into silliness, what grade should he get? Does it matter more in a horror movie, where even one major break in tension makes the tale totter?
You can ask yourself these questions at “Don’t Breathe,” where director Fede Alvarez (who did the “Evil Dead” remake) masterfully sustains a little more than an hour of shocks. Eventually, though, he resorts to the ideas lazy or unobservant filmmakers employ: An indestructible character who can survive the most brutal abuse, a smart character who suddenly behaves in a stupid way, a satisfying ending spoiled by a silly coda. (He wrote the screenplay with fellow Uruguayan Rodo Sayagues.)
Simplicity is no sin in horror movies, and the set-up here is simple: Three young people in Detroit, who make money by breaking into houses, pick the wrong victim: A blind Iraq War veteran (Stephen Lang) who lives in a deserted neighborhood. They fail to render him unconscious with chloroform, and he fights back savagely.
The writers prepare this path well. Rocky (“Evil Dead” star Jane Levy) needs cash to get herself and her younger sister away from an abusive mom. Alex (Dylan Minnette) dreams vaguely of escaping to L.A. with Rocky. The odious Money (Daniel Zovatto), Rocky’s boyfriend – this may be the least believable thing in the film – just wants dough.
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Alex’s dad works for a security system and stupidly keeps clients’ spare keys and security codes in his desk. Money learns that the blind vet, one of those clients, received a huge settlement from a rich family whose daughter accidentally killed the vet’s child with a car. They conclude, not reasonably but accurately, that it’s in his decaying house.
Alvarez and Sayagues follow the adage that a man who has lost sight develops superb hearing – though not, apparently a better sense of smell. The vet is no victim in any sense; he has a shocking double secret of his own that makes him unsympathetic and increases our empathy for Rocky and Alex as they try to fight him off. (Only in retrospect does this shocking revelation seem impossible.)
Alvarez intelligently explores the opportunities to scare us in a creepy old house, from the upstairs rooms to the enormous cellar. Lang, snorting and enormous and bestial, seems like the Minotaur stalking intruders in his deadly labyrinth. For the first hour, the psychological cruelty far outweighs the physical.
But the filmmakers eventually try too hard to frighten or disgust us with straightforward violence, and they don’t know when to stop. If someone slams your head twice into a metal radiator, you don’t run around later; you’re dead. If you plummet backwards 15 feet to a concrete surface, you don’t resume an attack with a broken back.
So “Don’t Breathe” becomes a series of “and yets.” And yet the story’s plausible at first...and yet the vet’s dog behaves in a way no dog would...and yet we’re emotionally invested in Levy, who gives a fine performance...and yet nobody would keep a million dollars in cash in his house....
So what grade DO you give this movie? My answer is below.
☆ ☆ ☆
Cast: Jane Levy, Dylan Minnette, Stephen Lang, Daniel Zovatto.
Director: Fede Alvarez.
Length: 90 minutes.
Rating: R (terror, violence, disturbing content and language, including sexual references).