DON’T BREATHE (2016, Fede Alvarez)
Is there such a thing as being post-moral? Alvarez’s second feature (following the disappointingly muffled EVIL DEAD) has a key line from its villain about how when you know God doesn’t exist, there isn’t anything that’s out of line. Whether or not you’re an atheist, you can identify with the framework here that this isn’t about good vs. evil or bad guys against heroes. Alvarez clearly has a protagonist in Jane Levy’s likable heroine (she’s out to save her younger sister from their alcoholic and abusive mother) and an antagonist in Stephen Lang’s blind kidnapper. But Lang has a few reasons for being the way he is, and Levy is clearly no saint, established early on as a criminal and a thief. Plus, Levy’s two accomplices are in an even greyer moral area, proving that this movie isn’t about seeing how good can triumph over evil. It’s about survival and suspense, and Alvarez reduces the entire 88-minute experience to a boiled-down exercise in visual storytelling that focuses on the theme of what you and the characters can and can’t see.
Alvarez and his co-writer Rodo Sayagues get their exposition out of the way swiftly and with little fanfare. Stakes are set up, characters broadly defined with a thick piece of chalk on a sidewalk, and then they unleash the nightmare. The house is established in a clever single take, during which so many details are planted that the payoffs become more and more improbably satisfying. Hardly a shot is wasted even when the story takes unexpected twists. Alvarez doesn’t go out of his way to surprise you — he just turns sharply and doesn’t strain a muscle.
Sure, some plot points threaten our suspension of disbelief, with things like the villain’s sensitivity to sound and the police’s multiple failures becoming slightly risible. But your knuckles will be white regardless, because Alvarez has learned the right things from predecessors like Carpenter, Hill, and Craven. Less is more, and action drives fear much better than dialogue, backstory, or profound epiphanies.