“Don’t Breathe” is one deliciously inventive thriller that rarely lets you actually, well, breathe. Director Fede Alvarez crafted a wholly engrossing movie that keeps you on your toes from its ominous opening shot to its equally grim finale.
The film’s title refers to what the teenage delinquents Rocky (Jane Levy), Alex (Dylan Minnette) and Money (Daniel Zovatto) must do when they break into a blind war veteran’s (Stephen Lang) house and become the hunted. The Blind Man can’t see, but he sure knows how to use his ears and nose — and his gun.
It might seem strange for the invaders in a home invasion movie to be the heroes, but they aren’t just criminals: They’re downtrodden kids who want to build better lives for themselves. Rocky also has a sister to save from their abusive mother, and she dreams of finding a new beginning in California. Robbing houses is their way of making the money they need, and the Blind Man is sitting on $300,000.
The morality turns even grayer when we learn the Blind Man received the money as a settlement after his daughter died in a car accident. When the kids break into his house, he’s hurting. He wallows in bed, listening to old tapes of his little girl. The Blind Man is chained to a ghost, so it’s not hard to see why he has a lot of rage.
And boy, is that rage frightening. Within a minute of meeting the Blind Man, Money gets a bullet to the head, and Rocky and Alex are forced to find a way to escape the house, which is much harder to break out of than it is to break in. Convenient, perhaps, but Alvarez makes their predicament believable, drawing attention to the iron bars on the windows and the locked exits.
The heart-pounding cat-and-mouse game between the teens and the Blind Man employs every corner of the cramped prison of a house. The film fires off one close call after another, and it often becomes deathly quiet, assaulting the ears with a deepening silence that is more maddening than any scream its characters can muster. There’s not much blood, so when it does gush it has a much stronger impact. There are quite a few jump scares as well, but they are each placed at the climax of a gloriously tense scene. Alvarez patiently allows the dread to simmer, constructing the film so that the actors’ performances and the dark atmosphere force viewers to the edges of their seats.
As the Blind Man, Stephen Lang dominates the film with an iron fist. His raspy voice is chilling; his pale, expressive eyes are piercing. Lang, experienced in the field of playing military characters, boasts the physical prowess to make the Blind Man more monstrous than the supernatural terrors of Alvarez’s “Evil Dead” remake. Alvarez also gives the Blind Man an extremely twisted edge, which will make him difficult for more squeamish filmgoers to stomach. But fans of the horror genre will surely enjoy how far the character pushes the boundaries of good taste.
Jane Levy, who collaborated previously with Alvarez in “Evil Dead,” is a capable lead. Though Rocky isn’t always likable, Levy makes her understandable, so when the robbery goes awry, we are rooting for her to make it out alive. Minnette’s Alex may be the most sympathetic of the characters because he maintains some sense of decency, refusing to rob the Blind Man after learning of his past. When he regroups with Rocky, it’s out of his unrequited love for her.
Because “Don’t Breathe” gives us characters we can empathize with, its small-scale terrors become all the more pronounced. This is an excellent sophomore effort for Alvarez and one of this year’s best horror pictures.
Running Time: 88 minutes
Score: 4.5/5 stars