Fede Alvarez’s camera looms above a devastated Detroit like a dispassionate deity. Rows upon rows of dilapidated, abandoned houses stretch to the horizon; casualties of capitalism lined up like weatherboard gravestones. A grey figure marches down the bitumen centre of this residential cemetery, dragging something behind it. As the camera continues its unerring descent, we recognise the something as an unconscious young woman (Jane Levy), at the mercy of some rough beast slouching towards an indistinct destination.
Don’t Breathe’s bracing introduction achieves a great deal in a few short seconds. Its primary contribution to the film that follows – a nasty, horror-tinged thriller – is tonal. There’s a fatalistic fog enveloping the subsequent events. As Rocky (Levy) plans a burglary with partners-in-crime Alex (Dylan Minnette) and Money (Daniel Zovatto), her boyfriend, the image of her prone body dragged through abandoned streets provides a pall reinforced by drab lighting and dingy sets. The theft is supposed to be an escape – an escape from abusive parents and the bleak realities of their hometown – but any hint of optimism is swallowed up by the weight of impending doom.
But the film’s cold open – modelled after the tradition of horror movies (like Alvarez’s last film, an underrated Evil Dead remake) – also provides the key ingredient to successful horror: a sense of place. Too many mediocre horror films offer empty scares, absent any kind of sociocultural context. By foregrounding Don’t Breathe’s Detroit setting, Alvarez emphasises the despair of a degrading, vestigial outgrowth of the American dream. It’s a familiar theme, but one especially relevant to a nation building its future on a stage corrupted by rotten, crumbling scaffolding.
The film’s events begin proper when Rocky and her fellow burglars break into the house promising their big score. The camera – augmented by CGI and with an unmistakable hint of gimmickery – launches through the two story household, lingering deliberately on a hammer here, or a revolver there. This long shot simultaneously undercuts the tension, by providing a mechanistic prediction of the violence to come, while reinforcing the atmosphere of fatalism. That this intrusion will not end well is in no way intended as a surprise. Critically, this shot also establishes a physical sense of space to complement the sociocultural space suggested by the cold open; we’re provided enough context to give the scares that follow a necessary physicality.
The house belongs to an elderly veteran (Stephen Lang), left blind by his wartime experiences and childless by a rich girl’s neglectful driving. Credited only as The Blind Man, we’re familiar enough with genre conventions – and our memory of the cold open – to recognise him as the antagonist. But Don’t Breathe defies such conventions by giving us little reason to sympathise with our intended protagonists. While horror cinema is richly staffed with deeply unlikeable horror victims, at this point in the film it’s hard to imagine why we’d side with the greedy millennials over the veteran with a tragic backstory.
The film gradually realigns our sympathies through a combination of disempowerment and, eventually, a shocking plot twist or two, but it steadfastly resists positioning itself as a story of good versus evil. Lang’s character is terrifying, both physically – his sinewy musculature, his cloudy eyes – and in terms of what he ultimately represents: a twisted apotheosis of the American patriot, corrupted by grief, loss and entitlement. But his would-be-robbers are entitled in a different way; denied opportunities by their circumstances, their first instinct is to take from others rather than fight for change.
Don’t Breathe doesn’t attempt to portray either party as monsters, nor heroes. Both The Blind Man and Rocky do bad things (some really bad things, later in the piece) for bad reasons, but they’re ultimately victims of a system that disenfranchises and disadvantages those without money. They’ve each grown up in a nation that promised them more than it could provide, that left their fancy cars to rust and discolour.
It’s tempting to read the film as a “portrait of Trump’s America” – a critical cliché that’s become tiresome barely more than a year into Trump’s candidacy – but while that’s a shallow take, I do think that the film offers a great deal more than genre thrills. Unlike the otherwise-excellent It Follows, Don’t Breathe makes full use of its Detroit setting, portraying its violence and transgression as natural outcomes of industrialisation in decline. As survivors fight for scraps in the city’s abandoned streets, we get an insight into the bitterness and resentment lurking underneath America’s shining exterior, concealing the grey, weary figure trooping off towards an uncertain future.