Some friends and I attended an early screening for the low-budget horror film “Don’t Breathe” for the simple reason that it was free and the prospect of seeing a movie early is always enticing. I had seen the trailer for “Don’t Breathe” when I saw “The Shallows” in theaters, and it didn’t pique my interest. It appeared to be based on loud noises, jump scares and the weak gimmick of a killer blind man. After seeing the film, I can confirm that my first impressions were correct. What surprised me me was how many similarities it had to the recent “10 Cloverfield Lane” and how much better “Lane” was in almost every regard.
The problems with “Don’t Breathe” begin with the very first shot. It’s a fine shot on its own; starting as a wide view of a peaceful neighborhood at sunrise before slowly zooming in on a man dragging an unconscious young woman through the street by her hair. The shot demonstrates the central premise and selling point of the film: suburban life covers up the darker aspects of humanity, but you can still be killed by a psycho anywhere. The problem with this shot is that it spoils a large portion of the film. The woman being dragged is our leading lady, “Rocky” (played by Jane Levy). So from this shot, we know the robbery will go wrong, her friends will be killed or otherwise removed from the narrative and she will get out of the house, but be dragged back in. The reason for the shot’s inclusion at the beginning is to establish a tone, but showing a flash-forward to one of the film’s darkest moment is a very lazy way to do this and comes at the expense of many potentially unpredictable twists and turns. For a comparison, “The Shallows” took a similar tactic with it’s opening, but with much greater success. Rather than a single shot, “The Shallows” opens with a full scene of a little boy on a beach. He finds a go-pro and watches a short amount of video before seeing footage of a shark attack and running away. This spoils nothing and establishes the presence of the shark, keeping the inevitable attack in our minds while the film takes its time to develop the protagonist. Eventually, the opening is revealed to be a flash-forward to a later point in the film, but when presented again carries a new level of stakes and gives the audience an “aha!” moment. When we finally return to the opening shot of “Don’t Breathe” it adds nothing at all other than a hope that the movie is almost over.
One area where many horror movies fail is in the establishment of like-able characters. “Don’t Breathe” is no exception to this rule. We are given precious little information about these characters who all seem to have one character trait each. Rocky is the most developed, but that doesn’t say very much. We get one scene of her interacting with her family—her horrible mother, drunk step-father and obnoxiously “cute” younger sister. Rocky’s little sister is supposed to be some sort of emotional anchor to establish stakes and make us want Rocky to succeed in the robbery. Unfortunately, they cast an eight-year-old in a part that should have been a five-year-old at most. The sister speaks in slow broken English toddler-speak to really drive home the cloying cuteness aspect and make us go “daww”. However, coming from an eight-year-old it comes off as a blatantly lazy attempt at audience manipulation. The other scene of character development for Rocky is when Alex (Dylan Minette) observes her ladybug tattoo. We find out that Rocky was abused by her mother through childhood and sometimes locked in the trunk of her mother’s car for hours. During one of these incidents, a ladybug flew inside the car and symbolized hope for her. The effects of her parental abuse are never really explored, and the scene only serves to reinforce the idea that Rocky is a fighter who won’t give up hope. I wouldn’t have a problem with this scene, except that it feels completely inorganic and Jane Levy fails to sell it on the acting front. We are told so little about the characters that this scene feels arbitrary and thrown in. Rocky is shown throughout the film to be “a fighter” but hardly more so than anyone else in her situation. There is absolutely no pay-off for her abuse in childhood so it comes across as a lazy device to make her more sympathetic.
The other characters, Alex and Money are given practically no characterization at all. Alex is the cautious nerd type who has a crush on Rocky and provides the trio with security codes thanks to his dad’s job with the security company. We are given the implication that his father and him have a complicated and distant relationship, but there are no specifics and no pay-off. Money (yes the character is named Money) is a caricature of someone who stopped existing circa 2003. He is a laughable “white gangster” who’s posturing is so ridiculous it’s amazing Rocky and Alex can take him seriously, let alone the audience. The lack of characterization is fine for Money (who dies in the trailer) but for Alex is inexcusable. We are clearly supposed to care about him, but are given very little reason to. He is a demure and docile beta who we’ve seen one hundred other times in a hundred other movies and frankly I didn’t care much either way whether he lived or died.
By comparison, in “10 Cloverfield Lane” the silent opening of the film effectively establishes the key trait of the main character: she runs away from her problems. Between the rapid editing and grim music, an ominous tone is established from the start without flashing forward to any intense or dark moments. Much of the credit is due to Mary Elizabeth Winstead, who is leagues above Jane Levy in the acting game and immediately sells us on her character. Unlike Levy’s Rocky, Winstead’s Michelle develops as a character throughout the film. We learn more about her and why she is the way she is in a way that feels natural, rather than an arbitrary scene about a tattoo. Michelle’s character traits actually affect and inform the narrative, whereas Rocky’s offer us virtually nothing. Of course, “Don’t Breathe” has a much more breakneck pace than “Lane” which offers almost no breathing room (no wordplay intended) once the action begins. That’s not much of an excuse, but it’s worth mentioning.
The supporting cast in “10 Cloverfield Lane” is also much more interesting than “Don’t Breathe”. John Goodman offers an incredible performance as Howard. His down-to-earth mannerisms make him feel like someone we know, but his intensity make him feel extremely volatile even before his angry outbursts begin. It’s a nuanced subtle performance from a veteran actor, and it’s probably not fair to compare him to the C-list cast of “Don’t Breathe”. But I’m going to anyway. The Blind Man (yes, he is listed as The Blind Man in the credits) played by Stephen Lang is supposed to be some sort of mildly sympathetic character, and he does start out that way. However, we never end up getting much depth out of him at all. When he starts his villainous monologues towards the end (which features some truly disgusting twists) I get the sense it was meant to be provocative or disturbing. Unfortunately, the writing is so banal that we’re rolling our eyes instead of squirming in our seats. I think Stephen Lang is a fine actor, but he reached the limit of what the material would let him do.
The final character in “10 Cloverfield Lane” (yes it’s basically a cast of three) is John Gallagher Jr.’s Emmett. Where Money is annoying and Alex is boring, Emmett is charming and believable. There’s so much charisma in his dopey smile and goofy jokes that he is almost instantly like-able. But it also becomes apparent that his attitude is a front for some true inner turmoil. Compare this to to Money’s “gansgsta” posturing and Alex’s…whatever, it’s clear which film has the advantage.
Compounding the problem of weak characterization is the fact that all of the main characters are stupid. Rocky did precisely one smart thing in the duration of the movie, and it was the part of the movie I felt most connected to. Throughout the entire film I was silently screaming at the screen “don’t do that you idiot, just leave”. A viewer can only have this reaction so many times before becoming completely disinterested in the movie. Of course the characters can and will make some dumb decisions, but when they only make dumb decisions it becomes harder and harder to care about them. Contrast this with “10 Cloverfield Lane” when Michelle is first kidnapped by Howard. She begins immediately to devise an escape plan, and when that fails she tries another. She is continually planning throughout the movie about how to escape, and her ingenuity is ultimately what saves her.
This leads me to the biggest problem for “Don’t Breathe”. Beyond the weak characters and poor acting, we are treated to some truly inane pacing. The movie rushes us into the action so soon that by the time we reach the climax we are completely numb and more than ready for the film to be over. Once the action starts, it pretty much keeps pumping at eleven and has very little room to build. The movie relies on loud noises to create cheap jump scares (or “startles” as they should be called) rather than effectively building tension throughout like a thriller ought to. When we finally get to the end, we want Rocky to succeed not because we’re so attached to her, but because we need some reward for how exhausting the movie is, and don’t want to sit through yet another scene of brutal violence.
This next paragraph will feature major spoilers, but I think it’s important to contrast these films and examine what makes “Don’t Breathe” fail where “10 Cloverfield Lane” succeeds. The two most major character deaths in the movies are Alex and Emmett respectively. Both are killed in a moment that is supposed to be surprising and leave the main character on her own against the villain. When Alex dies, it is greeted by a slow-motion blood-splatter, and feels like he died because he had saved Rocky from rape and was no longer needed in the story. He is thrown away as lazily as he is introduced, even after he already fake died twice in the movie. My reaction was not shock or sadness but a simple “oh okay so he’s really dead now”. Contrast this with Emmett’s death in “Lane”. When Emmett is shot, it is a shocking and brutal moment without us seeing any of the gory details. Emmett dies off-screen to represent the fact that he is ripped from the narrative and the situation is now between only the two leads. This is also the first time we see Howard kill someone and both John Goodman and Mary Elizabeth Winstead sell the moment perfectly. We are sad for Emmett, because we know much more about his character than we did Alex, but we are also immediately frightened for what his death means for Michelle. “Don’t Breathe” and many horror films like it, use bloody violence as an easy way to get an audience reaction, whereas “Lane” gets a much stronger reaction without showing anything. We’re given little reason to care about Alex’s death, other than basic human empathy for seeing someone die. Since we see people die all of the time in movies, this is not an effective death scene.
End of spoilers.
My final issue with “Don’t Breathe” is that I have no idea what the film-makers are trying to say. It’s tempting to say that the movie is intentionally free of any moral or political message, but I don’t think that’s the case. Perhaps the point is that “stand-your-ground” laws are bad, but it’s never really driven home. I think you can definitely read into the film whatever you want in regards to the law and poverty or any other issue it references, but the film itself isn’t saying anything specific at all. I suppose that’s okay, but the film dedicates much of its screenplay to careful observance of legal limitations. The characters (particularly Alex) are keen to only be charged with burglary, and avoid any more serious charges. At the end of the film (spoilers) the news presents the Blind Man as a brave home-owner defending himself against intruders, despite the fact that he committed three murders (end spoilers). Is the point that the media doesn’t present facts as they are? All of these ideas have limited set-up and no pay-off. This sort of movie doesn’t have to be saying something specific, since it’s main purpose is thrilling it’s audience. The problem is that the film-makers clearly were trying to say something, but failed to do so with any clarity.
At the end of the day, “Don’t Breathe” isn’t a terrible movie, despite the bad acting, weak screenplay and wonky directorial choices. Clearly, the people behind the camera at least cared about what they were doing, they just did it poorly. There is nothing cynical or false about it, it just isn’t very good.