Hard to resist putting these two together. Don’t Breathe doesn’t read like my type of film, but after loving Green Room I hoped that the “trapped in a tight and dangerous space” flick could for two-for-two this year.
Some SPOILERS below.
The movie is tense, has an incredibly active camera, and features an off-the-rails third act. The first two though really work as the group of thieves plot to break into the house of a blind man to steal his purported vast amount of cash.
Don’t Breathe is a solid example of classic, near-stereotyping in screenwriting. It’s pretty easy to figure out who dies and in what order. Money (Daniel Zovatto) has no family shown or mentioned, so he’s first to go; Alex (Dylan Minnette) has a father, but we only meet him via an inanimate object, so Alex is second; and we meet Rocky’s (Jane Levy) family, so she won’t die. There are other reasons too, of course – Rocky is shown in the opening scene so the flashback structure gives us in the info; the genre tells us that people will die and there are only four possibilities; Money is an asshole; Alex is smart so he won’t die right away, etc
I’d love to see a film that does this same setup and then reverses it. Rocky dies first, then Alex, and Money survives. It’d be a great way to destroy the cliche, but really tough to pull off (see the aforementioned “Money is an asshole.”).
I don’t dislike this structure. It’s there for a reason – my sympathies are firmly in place and I have someone to root for. But it’s also well-trodden and easy. Granted, it’d be an incredibly different movie otherwise, and not really the crowd-pleaser that it is.
Director Fede Alvarez spends a lot of time in the opening act using the camera to set up the space. It’s a lot of fun. The camera tracks throughout the entire house, sometimes stitched together digitally (as when it dramatically cranes up and through the floor). It reminded me of the opening of Panic Room. I like how investigatory it is. But the two main purposes – show me where things are and establish a kinetic feel – are successful.
That opener aside, there are other great visuals in here. A night-vision basement section is suspenseful. At one point Alvarez’s camera backs rapidly away from The Blind Man (Stephen Lang) and he totally recedes into darkness. It’s effective and eerie.
The last act moves from suspense thriller into full-on exploitation flick. If that’s your bag, then you probably love this movie. It felt pretty ridiculous. There are some nice tie-ins and twists, but the movie also really dragged for the final 10 minutes (one escape, one complication too many).
Mélanie Laurent’s second foray into feature directing is a compelling look at teen infatuation and angst. It’s possibly also about mental disorders, though if so, it’s not on-the-nose.
Whereas Alvarez’s title is a heart-stopping warning, Laurent’s is sort of a mantra. Just breathe. There’s tension in here, but again, different from Alvarez’s. Laurent gets a lot of mileage out of the unpredictability of teenagers. The film might tread into unbelievable territory if not for that notion. As it is, it sometimes hovers on the edge. Sarah (Lou de Laâge) is a beautiful confident girl who entirely disrupts the life of Charlie (Joséphine Japy). Sarah’s arc is steep, and it verges on over-the-top. Laurent really takes risks in the film, particularly in the final act.
One of my favorite things about Breathe is how it looks. Arnaud Potier’s cinematography is naturalistic, and Stanislas Reydellet’s production design is a nice complement. The tone is pretty warm-to-neutral throughout. Even simple setups like this car feel comfortable. The bottom two frames show off (I hope) some of the handheld. As the car comes to a stop the frame really shakes; I imagine that there’s a lot of intentionality there as it happens often in the film:
I really loved this moment where Charlie, who has asthma, runs faster than she should at track practice. Again, the light feels natural and Laurent keeps the depth of field pretty shallow. The camera is handheld and almost struggles to keep up:
I like how the final frame above just lingers on the soft crowd behind her rushing forward. It’s nicely dramatic and really stresses the emptiness with her having fallen.
Sometimes the film gets away from these strategies, like in a pretty stylish party scene:
The shot is pretty and moody, and given the context it makes total sense, but – simply visually here – I really prefer Laurent’s film when it takes naturalism at face value.