Don’t Breathe is one of the finest horror films I have seen in my adult life. Virtually every element of it worked for me; it’s tense as hell, the scares are unique, and it utilizes silence effectively to have us all freaking out in our seats even when nothing is really happening. There’s not much else I have to contribute to the conversation other than to say yes, it really is that good.
But I do have one complaint, and it only stands out because it is literally the only aspect of the movie I would change. And it lasts about 45 seconds.
Let’s talk about that opening scene.
Spoilers for Don’t Breathe ahead
I am so sick of cold opens showing us a scene that doesn’t take place until later in the story. So rarely is it used as anything other than a lazy way of starting the film with a bang without having to think up an original and exciting start, and so a random scene from the finale is stuck at the beginning. The result can completely alter our viewing experience, and in this case I’d argue it isn’t in a good way.
In Don’t Breathe, the opening shot is The Blind Man dragging our lead character, Rocky, down the street. She appears to be dead, as she’s covered in bruises and is leaving a trail of blood behind her. At the very least, she’s on the brink of death. The title card comes up, and then we cut back to a very-much-alive-and-not-being-dragged-through-the-street Rocky. “I bet you’re wondering how we got here,” she might as well have said in a voiceover.
From that one shot, we can surmise the following:
1) The robbery will go horribly wrong and end in violence.
2) Money and Alex will probably both die. (Why else wouldn’t they be with Rocky in the opening? Why wouldn’t they have tried to run with her?)
3) The Blind Man is not as innocent as he appears.
4) Rocky will likely try to flee at some point, only to be dragged back to the house either dead or unconscious. This also implies that the tables are turned eventually, with the invaders becoming prisoners.
5) Rocky either dies or is very, very seriously injured.
Points one and three are both spoiled in the trailer, but I think we should judge a movie like this, if possible, without being influenced by the promotional materials. After all, a few years from now, people will be throwing this on via Netflix without seeing any TV ads beforehand. A few months down the line, it will stand on its own.
With that in mind, what exactly is the benefit of seeing this scene at the beginning of the movie? I’m really asking.
Fede Alvarez is obviously not dumb. I’d argue he has already established himself as one of the best horror directors of this decade. So he clearly understands the effect the cold open will have on our viewing experience. Why, then, did he put it there?
Perhaps he liked the idea of filling the audience with a sense of dread, as they now know that Rocky is going to be killed or at least very badly harmed. This creates some dramatic irony, then, as we watch the characters plan what should be a relatively normal burglary when we know it is not one. But don’t we already know that if only because we bought a ticket for a horror film? Everyone understands that these kids aren’t going to have a clean getaway, and so we’re already dreading things from the start.
Maybe Alvarez wanted to trick the audience from the start, catching them off guard right away with a rare movie that opens by revealing that the main character dies at the end. That’s kind of a cool idea, but it’s undermined by the fact that he ends up cheating; Rocky isn’t actually dead in that scene, nor is she really that seriously injured. In fact, she just sort of gets right back into the action as soon as she returns to the house, and so the sequence does not carry nearly as much weight as it appeared to when the film began.
Did Alvarez want a scene that made us realize from the beginning that The Blind Man is somewhat villainous? We’re obviously rooting against him as soon as we see him dragging the body of our protagonist, but wouldn’t it be nice to be genuinely surprised when we realize the army veteran being robbed by three punk kids is more in the wrong than they are? That’s a clever subversion of our expectations, but not when The Blind Man is established as a psychopath in the first five seconds after we see him dragging a body down the street on a bright sunny day.
So I just genuinely don’t get the point. The cold open gives us a sense of foreboding…but we would have had that anyway just because we know the genre of the movie. It catches our attention…but only by tricking us into thinking something is more important than it winds up being. And it gets us rooting against The Blind Man…but it kind of ruins the surprise to establish him as a villain straightaway.
The whole thing reeks of studio interference, with some executive worrying that audiences would grow restless if there wasn’t blood, bodies and murderers at the very beginning. But it really does not take very long for a person to be brutally shot in the face, so even that doesn’t make much sense as an explanation.
When showing the film to friends years from now – and I will definitely be doing that dozens of times- I will have to seriously consider whether we should skip ahead a chapter. Everything else in Don’t Breathe is so brilliantly constructed that the unnecessary opening scene leaves me particularly stumped.