“Don’t Breathe” is a tense, visceral, and relentless thriller with moments of genuine brilliance, but for me it lacked ambition in a couple of important areas. Excellent sound design and story progression drove “Don’t Breathe” forward, as did a near perfect lead performance from Stephen Lang as ‘the blind man’, but these exceptional aspects were hampered by poor character development and horror movie logic.
“Don’t Breathe” began in a rather lacklustre manner, as the premise behind the action was clichéd and initial character motivation was incredibly transparent. In essence, this film is about three thieves trying to pull off one last big job so that they can ride off into the sunset together, which is obviously unoriginal, but thankfully this disappointing beginning quickly gives way to a pulsating, non-stop game of cat-and-mouse.
My disappointment at this film’s substandard attempt at character development was primarily down to the fact that Rocky, (the film’s lead protagonist played by Jane Levy), had absolutely no personality. With Rocky, the film’s writers did the typical Hollywood thing of forcing emotional investment from the audience by showing that she had a young family and a difficult life, rather than by making her character likeable or relatable. Having seen the film I can’t tell you how old Rocky is, what her interests are, or even if I like her, which makes it pretty clear that she isn’t properly fleshed out. This is a shame because it’s not as if Jane Levy gave a bad performance, (she was expressive and committed throughout), it’s just that she had nothing to work with.
Nonetheless, once this film’s shaky beginning came to a conclusion and the real meat of the film began “Don’t Breathe” improved significantly. Action sequences were well choreographed and intelligently thought out, and the blind man’s ailment was treated with respect throughout. The man’s blindness was initially used to make the audience feel sorry for him given that his house had been broken into, but then the writers did a quick switch and used the blindness to strike fear into the audience. This was a clever way for the writers to use their main plot device, and I enjoyed watching its usage in the film evolve over time.
Over the course of the film there are several intelligent twists that keep it fresh and maintain a sense of unease, and I think that these twists ultimately make the movie work. There are plenty of logical breaks and questionable decisions that could lead to “Don’t Breathe” feeling like a good premise and nothing more, but the timing of the twists and the way that they change both the story and the perception of the characters stops you from thinking about the issues.
Of course, the real reason that this movie has been a critical success is Stephen Lang’s magnificent performance. The main reason that his performance is so good is pretty obvious once you’ve seen the film, which is that you believe that he’s blind. He moves deliberately and disregards objects which are on the floor or in his near vicinity, and he feels around in the dark in places that no one else would think to ‘look’ because his sense of direction is through feel not sight. He also uses sounds and smells to locate the robbers, frantically sniffing the air for any sign of a scent, acting like the hunter even though in theory he should be the vulnerable one. He walks heavily and authoritatively, constantly on the attack, which establishes him as a threatening antagonist.
It’s a shame then that the film’s story has so many holes, because without the problems with the writing “Don’t Breathe” could’ve been a genuine movie-of-the-year contender from my perspective. To point out this movie’s plot holes in detail would require me to spoil the film’s ending and its two biggest twists, which I’m not willing to do because I think that would be unfair to anyone reading this, but I will explain the kind of issues that the logical breaks create and why they felt so wrong.
The first issue is that at many points in the film you’re left thinking ‘why would he do that?’, or ‘how could he do that?’, given that he’s blind. This ranges from little things like the blind man having photographs up all around his house when he can’t actually see them, to massive plot points that just wouldn’t be possible for a blind man to do/sustain. I can’t go into detail about which aspects of the film I’m referring to here because it really would spoil the movie, but it’s safe to say that once you start thinking about specific plot points they begin to fall down.
The second and even more pressing issue is that with certain developments you wonder how on earth nobody in the movie’s universe has noticed something wrong with the blind man and his circumstances, because when you consider what he’s been doing in his spare time you start to realise that somebody would’ve figured out his secret. Again, I can’t actually go into detail about what this secret is without ruining the film for anyone reading this, but I will say that the police force and journalists in this movie’s universe are very inadequate at their jobs.
Finally, the ending of the film was nonsensical, which is perhaps its biggest flaw. Initially it seems like an interesting and fitting way to end proceedings, but when you think about it more carefully you realise that it simply doesn’t make sense. The way that this movie unfolds dictates that questions would be asked no matter what the outcome, and those questions wouldn’t have convenient answers, so the final twist loses all of its impact. This is a huge problem for me, and I think that the film would’ve been better served by having a more conventional and straightforward conclusion.
So, all in all I thought that “Don’t Breathe” was a good film, but it wasn’t great. I came out of the cinema on a high after a thrilling experience, but given time to consider all the details I began to lose enthusiasm. I loved Stephen Lang’s performance and I appreciated most of the decisions that the director made with the film’s lighting, cinematography, and sound design, but the writing left a lot to be desired. I would recommend “Don’t Breathe” to casual cinemagoers as an entertaining bridge between a thriller and a horror, but objectively it has several noticeable flaws.