Sunday 25 September 2016

Don't Breathe (2016) - Movie Review

Plot twists are one of the darker horses in the cinematic storyteller’s tool box. In the right hands, it can not only create a phenomenal switch-up to the story but also add whole new dimensions to the events within. In the wrong hands, it can come across like someone trying to guess what number they’re thinking of and the answer turns out to be “elephant”; just because we didn’t see it coming doesn’t make it any less stupid. And even then, the danger with some of the more famous plot twists is that they end up becoming the main thing that the film is remembered for, pushing its other noteworthy elements to the side in the minds of most filmgoers.

I bring all this up because this film’s approach to marketing, at least around here, has put very heavy emphasis on the fact that this film has a major plot twist. I don’t know about any of you but I’ve always seen this as a pretty wrong-headed way to get people to see a particular feature. I always thought that twists were most effective when you had no idea that they were going to happen, so imagine how it feels sitting through an entire film knowing that a twist is going to occur. The irksome trailer strikes again, only this time it isn’t just my own paranoia that says it could negatively affect the overall product. So, is it damaged all that much in light of this? This is Don’t Breathe.

The plot: Rocky (Jane Levy), Alex (Dylan Minnette) and Money (Daniel Zovatto) are three burglars living in Detroit who rob houses in the area in order to secure enough so that they can finally leave town. They learn of a blind Army veteran (Stephen Lang) who is sitting on a large sum of money and, thinking it an easy mark, set out on one last job. However, once they arrive and find themselves trapped inside, it seems like the Blind Man isn’t as helpless as they thought.

The cast list is lean and not a single actor fails to deliver. Levy gives a very down-to-earth performance as this thief with a conscience, helped by how well she interacts with other characters to form her character’s motivations that end up bolstering her actions. Minnette manages to transcend his rather basic best friend role to make for this strong and surprisingly capable burglar, not to mention being the brains of the team without coming across too much like that label is all that his character is. Zovatto probably has the most one-dimensional character to work with, that being the typical thug life criminal, but credit where it’s due in that he delivers it with this straight a face and doesn’t let it enter the realm of gangsta pantomime.

Lang, in no uncertain terms, is bloody terrifying here. The mark of a good villain is being able to put them in a position of supposed helplessness but still be intimidating (e.g. John Kramer being on his deathbed in Saw III), and Lang has that down pat as he works with his character’s disability to create this morally conflicted bloodhound that people would cross continents if it meant being able to leave him alone. Partly because he deserves some solitude, and partly because you fear what he'd do to you if you managed to disturb him.

The greatest weapon in this film’s arsenal is its approach to sound, in what is easily one of the best sound designs of any film I’ve seen all year or maybe even the last few years. The USP for this film is how, with the Blind Man in the house, the characters need to be careful of how much noise they make and the film makes for damn certain to inform us of how vital this is. It follows an old psychological trick where noises feel like they are much louder when you are actively trying to make none at all, bringing attention to every clicking of footwear and creaking of floorboards that take place. It’s such a simple idea in practice, and yet it manages to do wonders in terms of enhancing the film’s atmosphere. After a while, the title becomes somewhat of a firm suggestion for the audience so that the sound design isn’t disturbed by your own breath. What’s more, this approach to sudden sharp bangs of sound along with the smaller instances end up helping with the film’s use of jump scares as well.

As much as I would like to lambast some of the jump scares used here, including one involving the Blind Man’s dog early on that feels rather tacked-on, the environment set up by the premise actually makes their use excusable. Again, when you’re trying to make as little noise as possible, sudden noises are pretty much guaranteed to get the heart going one way or another. It’s rare that a film will set up a premise that actively welcome jump scares from the offset, but this manages to work beyond that by not only featuring them sparingly but also putting everything into the atmosphere so that the actual “scare” part of the equation is warranted.

Of course, this film isn’t all about burglary with an emphasis on noise; this isn’t the Home Invasion mission from GTA: San Andreas we’re talking about here, as there is a remarkably sharp script behind it all. I’ve made mention before how much I’ve come to hate the idea that writing intentionally hateful characters is the right move to take, and it seems like this film agrees with me. I say that because Fede Alvarez and Rodo Sayagues have done a fantastic job at keeping each of the four characters morally dubious. They all have their reasons to be sympathised with, but their actions also make those reasons suitably murky. Setting this all against the backdrop of Detroit, which is quickly becoming the go-to locale for stories about people desperate to leave home, was a good move on its own but then we get into the character motivations which are all varying degrees of desperation to make a better life for themselves in spite of their circumstances.

Even when the twist does come into effect, and the audience’s alignment becomes a bit clearer, the questions of who is genuinely in the wrong is still hanging in the air. For a little while, this does start to wear down on the chilling atmosphere, as scares are harder to grasp at when it isn’t clear who exactly we should be scared for. However, because of the very nimble and mostly allergic to exposition writing, even when we get to the ending the moral compasses of our characters are still difficult to read. Not that their actions are entirely defensible, in fact it ends up reaching a point of jarring juvenile, but their reasoning for doing so can’t help but grab onto a certain amount of sympathy because of their circumstances and their sheer determination to make things work again.

All in all, an intelligent script is met with almost machine-efficient direction and top-notch acting to create a truly outstanding thriller. Its simple yet mesmerising approach to its thrills latches onto the audience on a visceral level, while the constant moral questioning of the script gives a very intellectual thrill at the same time; it is far too uncommon for a film to effectively appeal to both sides of the human psyche in such a way. It even managed to slice through my annoyed-by-marketing as, because the atmosphere is so immersive, you seem to fail to care about looking for said plot twist since what is shown up-front is so damn good on its own.

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