Home invasion is a familiar multiplex nightmare. It is a well that’s been tapped so often that by the time they’re wearing animal masks or talking about their need to purge, it starts to all feel a little silly. So in hindsight, it’s a bit of a shock that nobody had the ingenious idea of inverting the trope on its head before now. But Fede Alvarez and Rodo Sayagues do exactly that with Don’t Breathe, and in the process create one of the most delightfully intense and unexpected thrillers this year.
Essentially going back to the grandfather of all “there’s someone in the house” stories, Don’t Breathe takes the concept of Audrey Hepburn being a blind woman locked in with several thieves in Wait Until Dark (1967) and flips it to be about several relatively sympathetic thieves locked in the house with a blind man—one who lost his sight while serving in the U.S. Special Forces. And once he seals the only window that didn’t have bars on it, there’s no way out and there’s no stopping the movie’s giddiness for high adrenaline sequences of almost complete silence.
Intriguingly, Don’t Breathe plays with the kind of moral relativism that escapes most studio pictures. While there is traditionally nothing scarier than somebody breaking into your home, we are also in a nation of “Stand Your Ground” laws. This gives folks almost carte blanche to do whatever they want with perceived threats to their safety. And as it turns out, that might be as scary as any thief in your home.
Set in the sprawling urban decay of Detroit, the only jobs left for Rocky (Jane Levy), Alex (Dylan Minnette), and Money (Daniel Zovatto) are the kind that come by breaking and entering. Money seems pretty comfortable with this lifestyle, but Rocky is only doing it to earn enough dough to get herself and her kid sister out of Detroit. Alex, meanwhile, is likely just doing it to help Rocky, even though she is in a dead-end relationship with Money.
However, the prospects for all seem to change when they discover that a blind man (Stephen Lang) is living in the last house of an abandoned neighborhood in the boondocks. Something of a hermit after his daughter was run over by a careless driver, the blind man never goes outside, save to walk his dog (it’s a Rottweiler), even though he purportedly earned at least $300,000 in a court settlement with the reckless driver’s family. Knowing that this blind guy is sitting on all that cash, Rocky sees it as her way to California with her sister, and Alex sees it as a way to get her away from her douchebag boyfriend. What none of them notice, unfortunately, is that with every window on the house barred, and the doors made impenetrable with multiple locks, that once they go into the home, there may very well be no way to get out.
With its deceptively simple premise, Don’t Breathe is an exercise in misdirection and cinematic sleight of hand. So much so that it quickly overcomes the rather uninspired set-up, which lays on the pretense of empathy for its protagonists a little too thickly. It’s probable that the kid sister with horrid alcoholic parents was a Hollywood touch. But the real audience-identification comes from just how terrifying Lang is as the blind man who’s trying to hunt them down and execute them with extreme prejudice. Alvarez likewise appears aware of this since he gallops through the first 10 minutes, trying to get us into the house as soon as possible. Because once that door is opened (or in this case window), it is all high-stake tension from there.
One of the movie’s strongest advantages is the cinematography by Pedro Luque, who along with his director imagines every corner in the house to be an opportunity for sweeping dolly shots or intricate set-ups that transform a run-down home into an abyss that lies on the mouth of hell. There is one shot where the camera sweeps underneath the blind man’s bed, revealing a gun waiting to be picked up, that creates more dread than any jump scare.
To be sure, there are jump scares aplenty here as well, yet Fede Alvarez shrewdly chooses to go in the complete opposite direction of his 2013 Evil Dead remake. Whereas that film was a wild ride that relied on gore (lots and lots of gore), Don’t Breathe is entirely the anticipation of what the blind man, who moves like a ninja, will do if and when he ever gets his hands on one of these kids. And he will. Additionally, the 88-minute running time is stuffed with a few twists that genuinely work. Don’t Breathe goes to some very dark places, and what’s better is that you won’t expect half of them until it’s far too late—just like it is for the characters.
All of this is strengthened by the two lead performances from Levy and Lang. Jane Levy was the emotional anchor around Evil Dead and gets more to chew on here. Her early scenes with the sister fall a bit flat, however this is likely due more to the Alvarez and Sayagues’ obligatory exposition. Once she is in the house and can really play off Lang, Levy is allowed to take audiences on an odyssey of anguish, just as Lang keeps his cards close to the chest as to whether he’s a poor blind guy simply defending himself or a predator given fresh prey.
Each have a dynamite sequence at the halfway point, when Lang turns off the lights to the basement that Rocky and Alex are trapped in. The set-up is right out of Silence of the Lambs, but there are no night-vision goggles here. We are instead treated to special digital photography of Levy and Minnette trying to grope their way in complete blackness out of a pit where the monster is just waiting for them to accidentally tap his arm.
Like this year’s earlier (and admittedly stronger) 10 Cloverfield Lane, Don’t Breathe is a throwback thriller that relies almost entirely on suspense and the strength of its high-concept over splatter or an overabundance of loud crashing sounds. If this is the beginning of a trend, it’s more than welcome, albeit our nerves might disagree.