The politics of working-class populism are thorny. On one hand, the American dream is careening out of reach. On the other, the cycle of poverty that inflicts so many urban communities seems just as unstoppable. It’s a nuanced issue that deserves immediate attention and careful consideration.
With its inner-city Detroit setting and depiction of unending economic misery, Don’t Breathe may be the most immediate horror movie since Green Room, but it’s also the least careful—at least politically. It’s a movie that exploits charged images and ideas like a butcher and follows through on its egalitarian premise with wholesale nihilism. According to Don’t Breathe, everyone is guilty and justice is meted out with industrial efficiency.
But on a technical level, it’s a marvel of craftsmanship. Fede Alvarez—director of the equally lurid Evil Dead remake—has an uncanny sense of space, and he lays out his abattoir with an architect’s eye toward space and geography. After a prolonged setup, the movie becomes a sustained nightmare of tension punctuated by precious few moments of release. (I don’t know if I’ve ever been in a theater so simultaneously packed and raptly silent.)
Alvarez stretches his premise—Wait Until Dark if Audrey Hepburn were an unstoppable, vicious psychopath—to its cruelest ends, sparking jolt after jolt with a savage glee. It’s a movie about the senses, and Alvarez toys with light and dark, sound and silence, like a circus ringmaster. (Doors and floorboards don’t creak—they scream.) He tosses improbable situations atop one another like a Jenga tower but manages to exert enough control so that it doesn’t collapse until the lights come up. And even if it all comes close to toppling more than once, the flood of provocations is so profoundly literal that keeping up is part of the fun.
But, in light of the socio-economic issues at play, “fun” might be the wrong word; the movie feels as dirty as a porno. Then again, so did the great political horror movies of the ‘70s. If Alvarez’s social insight ever matches his formal rigor, we might have a new master on the scene.
Don’t Breathe. Directed by Fede Alvarez. Written by Fede Alvarez and Rodo Sayagues. Starring Jane Levy, Dylan Minnette, and Stephen Lang. Opens in Kansas City August 26, 2016.