Don’t Breathe (2016) – Everything is Awful (And That’s Awesome)

And so the summer box office has closed once again. Kids have gone back to school once more or for the first time, and the undergraduate classes of 2017 have stepped onto campus for the last time – in most cases. It seems fitting that each summer ends so quietly, so that all students, young and old, may set their sights on the beginning of the school year. One could argue that Sausage Party was the last hurrah in spite of not having box office smash-type figures. The numbers may be responsible for such suggestions, but Fede Alvarez’s Don’t Breathe makes absolutely certain that the season ends with anything but a whimper.

Is it just me, or was Don’t Breathe a better project for Alvarez than the Evil Dead reboot? Don’t get me wrong, Evil Dead was satisfyingly, incredulously – no, that is not a contradiction – gory and entertaining enough in that respect, but the narrative and aesthetic similarities it shares with Don’t Breathe are better suited for the latter of the two. No to mention, as far as Alvarez’s directorial career is concerned, Don’t Breathe was a proper follow-up to Evil Dead.

First things first: Don’t Breathe is nowhere near as bloody as Evil Dead, which probably goes without saying, anyway, because little else across the genre is. But unlike Evil Dead, Don’t Breathe didn’t need to be the next raining gorefest. With a narrative grounded in reality, Don’t Breathe could rely on the setting and its overall atmosphere for a portion of the required nastiness – not to say that Evil Dead wasn’t similarly gritty and grimy, but it was artificially so, with green filters to visually suggest human decay. With Don’t Breathe’s setting being Detroit, you don’t have to travel far for a glimpse at urban decay.

And speaking of similarities, let’s examine the parallels, as small as they may be, between the characters in each film. In Evil Dead, Mia (Jane Levy), including her brother (Shiloh Fernandez) and some college friends, travel to a family cabin in the woods so that she can kick her drug addictions for a hellish detox weekend. In Don’t Breathe, Rocky (Jane Levy) and her fellow thieves rob affluent folks just to scrape by in lives of abject poverty. Now, living in poverty and confronting a drug addiction are clearly two entirely different situations, but the similarities lie in the characters struggling in unenviable situations while occupying oppressive environments, and things only seeming to get worse.

Perhaps the biggest similarity, though, underlines where Don’t Breathe succeeds and Evil Dead arguably fails. Throughout both films, Alvarez is sympathetic to his characters and able to intimately portray their lives and their struggles without carelessly probing. With that being said, because the point of Evil Dead is to mangle and maim its protagonists in blood-curdling fashion, it sometimes delves into a mean-spirited kind of fun that while somewhat acceptable, is a distinct break away from the wacky giddiness of the previous films in the franchise, and even the legitimate frights of the original.

Though Don’t Breathe’s worldview is entirely cynical with regards to a dying American Dream and little hope for generations past, present and future, it’s far from mean-spirited because Alvarez refuses to take pleasure in depicting these realistic horrors and tell audiences to do the same. On top of that, it has no time for such tones inside its lean 88-minute runtime. With a fast-paced narrative, it would much rather plug along from one horrendous predicament to another, remaining sympathetic to all until the presence of an antagonist is necessary.

That’s about as complex as Don’t Breathe gets, and it doesn’t need to accomplish much more. It’s lean, mean and incredibly no-nonsense in its approach, though it isn’t afraid of a few twists in the road. It’s able to work comfortably within the confines of the home invasion genre, while still injecting its own subtle flavor of subversion. Its simplicity makes it charming, while its innovation makes it disturbing. Not to mention it thankfully doesn’t reduce itself to cheap gimmicks like the night vision it makes prominent in its advertising.

Though, with all of the comparing and contrasting between Don’t Breathe and Evil Dead, what does this mean for the long-pending Evil Dead sequel and Alvarez’s adaptation of Dante’s Inferno? I have faith in Alvarez, but will either be able to stand up to Don’t Breathe? Well, I guess that’s a problem for future audience members to sort out. Those guys are jerks.

As far as American horror is concerned, Don’t Breathe is one of the most intense in recent memory. Don’t let the short runtime and steadily quick pace fool you; it isn’t a breeze by any stretch of the imagination. No one wins, no one loses; everything just sucks – spoiler alert. Odds are, even if you are a hardened genre fanatic, you aren’t shaking this one off anytime soon.

 

3.5/4

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