Don't Breathe and The Definition of David Fincher's Cinematic Language
*Spoilers for Don’t Breathe, Panic Room, and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo to follow.
“I think people are perverts. I’ve maintained that. That’s been—that’s the foundation of my career.” – David Fincher, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo bonus features.
From the ever-looming god-like camera, to the contrast between warm and cold colors, to the striking insert shots, visually Don’t Breathe shares, or borrows, a lot of David Fincher’s signature motifs. Breaking down the premise of Don’t Breathe, we see that it’s very similar to Fincher’s 2002 thriller Panic Room. Three thieves looking for a sizeable sum of money break into a house and what they aren’t prepared for are the residents inside. In Panic Room, Jodie Foster and Kristen Stewart’s mother and daughter combo try to outwit the three thieves (Forest Whitaker, Dwight Yoakam, and Jared Leto) from the safety of their panic room. While in Don’t Breathe, the roles of protagonist and antagonist are reversed; Jane Levy plays a thief who along with her two accomplices decides to steal from a blind veteran who, it turns out, is hiding something truly sinister. Both films keep their characters in confined spaces, with all the action taking place in one house. Our leads in each, Foster and Levy, respectively, find that escape is key to their survival.
As a film on its own, Don’t Breathe works amazingly well. It manages to pave its own way and not just become a mimic of any other home invasion film we’ve seen before. There are stellar performances by Levy and Stephen Lang, who plays the blind veteran Norman. There’s one sequence set entirely in the dark, filmed with night vision cameras that’s a contender for most inventive, pulse-pounding sequence of the year.
Don’t Breathe director Fede Alvarez embraces the similarities to Panic Room, stating in an interview that, “I saw [Panic Room] when I was in film school and it really impacted me in terms of all the things you could do with a camera to tell the story, how to place the audience in the house.” On the DVD commentary track for Panic Room, Fincher describes one of the key shots in the film, where the camera moves with expert precision, as “personality-free” and “Terminator-like”. There’s an unbroken shot early on in Don’t Breathe that foreshadows events later in the film that Alvarez says is directly influenced by Fincher’s inhuman camera work.
More specifics line up between the two films; one of the thieves in Don’t Breathe, played by Daniel Zovatto, has a cornrow haircut that looks a lot like Jared Leto’s cut in Panic Room (which was all Leto’s idea, according to Fincher) and they each share a similar, painful death. There’s a moment when the moral center of the thieving trio, Dylan Minnette and Forest Whitaker, respectively, get burned on the temple by a recently-fired gun barrel. The films' title cards have a similar fonts and even the name Raoul/Raul is thrown around in each. Small details add up. It feels like Alvarez studied every little nuance in Panic Room in order to replicate and build on the home invasion genre.
Panic Room is the primary key to dismantling Don’t Breathe, but Alvarez doesn’t stop there with the Fincher callbacks. There’s a brutal gunshot to the face that recalls Edward Norton’s self-mutilation in Fight Club, right down to the use of slow-motion, the bright pulse of the gunfire and the blast rippling through the skin. Then we have what happens in the dungeon.
This is the point when Don’t Breathe turned off many audience members and critics. What started out as a seemingly by-the-numbers home invasion film, becomes incredibly seedy and perverse. It is revealed that Norman isn’t just protecting his cash stash, but he's kidnapped a woman and is keeping her in his basement. It gets even more disgusting as we learn why exactly Norman has been keeping her. The woman is responsible for killing his daughter, and according to Norman it’s only fair that since he lost a child he’d be given one back. Frozen semen and a turkey baster are involved.
This make-shift basement dungeon in Don’t Breathe looks similar to the one from Fincher’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, restraints and cords hold the victim, while bright fluorescent lights shine above. Don’t Breathe and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo share the kind of glossy repulsiveness that Fincher is known for.
On the DVD commentary track, Fincher admits Panic Room is a B-movie, one which he tries to and succeeds at elevating into a very effective, beautiful-to-look-at thriller. It seems like every other film on his resume fits this distinction. Imagine Se7en directed by someone other than Fincher. Would any other director, coming to his second feature, have filled the film with as much dread and refined camerawork as Fincher? It could have easily been nothing more than mid-90s schlock, but Fincher trained his camera on the blood-soaked crime scenes with a surprisingly refined restraint. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is an extension of the malevolence in Se7en, both not shying away from the acts and the machinations of their respective serial killers.
Don’t Breathe’s Norman rationalizes his actions, describing how the death of his child proves there is no God and, because of that, he’s free to do what he wishes. While nowhere near as well-rounded as Se7en’s John Doe or even Dragon Tattoo’s Martin Vanger, Norman’s character is just as demented and frightening as those killers. Alvarez, like Fincher, is obsessed with the limits of what evil people do and what they hide. Fincher states in the Dragon Tattoo special features, “I think people are perverts…that’s the foundation of my career.” He generalizes his audience and what they crave, while also revealing how he feels about his own characters. From Fight Club’s Tyler Durden to Gone Girl’s Amy Dunne, there are masks over these individuals hiding a dangerous level of chaos.
Fincher’s influence on Alvarez is apparent throughout Don’t Breathe. The threads from Panic Room are undeniable. Stepping back, Alvarez’s film might be the first film to directly replicate, in the most loving fashion, Fincher’s style. Ever since The Social Network, we’ve seen coldly-lit, digitally-photographed imitators, but Don’t Breathe understands Fincher’s cinematic language like no other. One only needs to look back at Brian De Palma’s admiration of Hitchcock’s cinematic language to understand why Don’t Breathe is an important step for both Alvarez and Fincher. De Palma’s reputation as a “Hitchcock-stealing hack” has thankfully subsided in recent years. What De Palma understood early on is that Hitchcock developed techniques and plot devices that would later be so universal that our current definition of “thriller” might as well be known as “Hitchcockian.”
It is way too early to tell whether Fincher has developed a new cinematic language as influential as Hitchcock’s; Fincher himself, like De Palma, plays with Hitchcock’s troupes while carving out his own. Don’t Breathe might be a turning point, though. Fincher might be the current master of the mainstream thriller, his influence felt through several films today. Don’t Breathe is an interesting take on the Fincher’s style, proving that even a “minor” work like Panic Room turned out to greatly influences one of the best films of the year.
(One thing I wanted to bring up: today I sat down and wrote this article while watching Panic Room and Don’t Breathe at the same time. Not back-to-back, but at the same time. Usually, I’m not one for shot-by-shot comparisons of two different films. But, I found the similarities between these two films too significant to ignore. I joked online that I wanted to edit a video experiment putting Don’t Breathe and Panic Room over one another, a la The Shining: Forwards and Backwards. For me, there was a lot to visual content to take in with both films so I figured, what the hell, let me take care of two birds with one stone. I played each side-by-side on my computer and I ended up, by pure accident, synchronizing the two films on a key push-in, introducing the two short-haired blonde leads.
From there, there were a few instances, just a few mind you, that parallel to an almost shocking extent. Scenes in a kitchen to the break-in sequences in each film line up pretty well. It all falls apart by the final act of Don’t Breathe because its pacing heightens to its end while Panic Room still has about 20 minutes left in its runtime. Still, it further proves that the pacing, editing and plot of the two films share a lot in common.)