The Aisle Seat - Movie Reviews by Mike McGranaghan
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THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan


Don't Breathe

You know how amusement park rides often have a sign in front of them saying you must be a certain height to ride? Any theater showing Don't Breathe needs to have something similar out front, saying you can only see the movie if you have a certain tolerance for tension. It's been a long time since a horror movie made every muscle in my body tense up and stay that way. The original Paranormal Activity may have been the last one. Or maybe Backcountry. This is the kind of film that just makes you nuts for ninety minutes, which is the highest compliment it can be paid.

Jane Levy plays Rocky, a young woman in desperate need of money so that she can make a better life for her daughter. Together with her idiot boyfriend Money (Daniel Zovatto) and amorous friend Alex (Goosebumps star Dylan Minnette), she schemes to break into the home of a blind war veteran (Stephen Lang) to steal the money he got from a wrongful death settlement. The Blind Man (as the film refers to him) lives in a big old house in a rundown, largely deserted Detroit neighborhood. No sooner does the trio break in than the man is awakened. They try to remain silent, but his other senses are heightened, so he knows they are there. And he's crazy. And they're trapped.

That setup is complete in the first 30 minutes of Don't Breathe. The next hour is a cat-and-mouse game with increasingly dire, bloody stakes. Part of what makes the movie so effective is that it levels the playing field. An especially tense sequence finds the Blind Man killing the electricity while the characters are in his basement, so that they're as blind as he is. He also has a canine helper. Every sequence with the dog is nerve-rattling. There are additionally a lot of close calls, as Rocky and Alex attempt to avoid making even the tiniest noise in his presence so as not to betray their whereabouts. When they hold their breath, so does the audience.

Any time you think you have Don't Breathe all figured out, it throws in an unexpected twist or introduces a new danger to the characters that you don't see coming. The key to good suspense is to pile one obstacle on top of another. Director Fede Alvarez (Evil Dead) does that brilliantly. Things continually get worse for Rocky and Alex, especially in those moments when it seems like they're about to get better. There are a few traditional jump scares in the movie, but the biggest jolts come from realizing that some unforeseen threat has just emerged.

Underneath the scares is an intriguing examination of the gray areas in this scenario. Don't Breathe gives us heroes who are also thieves. Rocky may have a noble intention in trying to build a better future for her child, but she's also stealing a stranger's money. Alex doesn't really want to go through with the robbery; his affection for Rocky makes him want to help her, though. The Blind Man may be the potential victim of theft. He does, however, have a sadistic side that comes out when people invade his home. These ambiguities elevate Don't Breathe above being just a fright show. There's a human element that makes all the scary stuff even more disturbing.

Jane Levy is really sensational in the lead role. She possesses an innate likability, and she's got a million variations on conveying Rocky's fear. Dylan Minnette is also good, showing how Alex's feelings for Rocky make him susceptible to bad decisions. The best performance comes from Stephen Lang (Avatar), who is thoroughly menacing as the Blind Man. We learn something about the character midway through, which provides a bit of empathy, so that even when he's doing heinous things (and some of the things he does are seriously heinous), we recognize that he is less a monster and more a guy who has morally lost his way to an alarming degree.

The only place where Don't Breathe whiffs it a bit is in the opening scene. The film kicks off with an event that happens near the end of the story, then rewinds to show what led up to that moment. We unfortunately know something that would have been more suspenseful not to know right off the bat. It isn't a huge blunder, although it certainly takes a bit of the mystery out of things.

Then again, you're likely to be too busy gripping your armrest to care. Don't Breathe is incredibly scary, in a realistic way few horror movies are able to achieve. It messes you up good.

( 1/2 out of four)

Don't Breathe is rated R for terror, violence, disturbing content, and language including sexual references. The running time is 1 hour and 28 minutes.

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