Don’t Breathe hits all the marks of a classic horror thriller. Count on regular doses of nervous laughter, and a nagging sense of dread. Above all, remember the title is just a warning for the characters, not the audience.
Three teens stuck in Detroit try to change their fate burglarizing homes. With some insider knowledge on home security, no residence is safe. But the gang has grown tired of high-risk, low reward gigs and is ready for a life-changing big score. That opportunity presents itself with a blind man (Stephen Lang, Avatar) sitting on a major lawsuit settlement in an otherwise deserted neighborhood. But once they break in, they quickly realize they chose the worst possible target. One who’s not afraid to do whatever it takes to keep his treasures safe.
Director/Co-writer Fede Alvarez (Evil Dead) lures viewers in as easily as the teens. There’s nothing particularly spooky about the house, but Alvarez wrangles every possible bit of tension around every corner.
Co-writer Rodo Sayagues and Alvarez do a tremendous job establishing the characters. There’s no definitive protagonist or villain. Everyone’s a dirty shade of grey with genuine motivation behind all their actions. That helps in terms of keeping the audience flexible in terms of their rooting interest.
Initially, the teens are so irredeemable they deserve exactly what they get. As the film unfolds, they may not be good guys, but they’re not evil. Of the main cast, Rocky (Jane Levy) is the most sympathetic. She’s desperately needs the big score to get her younger sister away from their degenerate mother. Alex (Dylan Minnette, Prisoners) is stuck in the friend zone while Rocky’s boyfriend, Money (Daniel Zovatto) doesn’t want him having any higher aspirations.
Alvarez doesn’t bother with teases. If a scene seems poised to deliver a scare it does. But where Don’t Breathe really succeeds is you know a scare is coming, but it’s executed in a way you rarely see it coming. Alvarez stages an ingenious scene where the teens get a taste of what life is like for a blind man. It’s a clever twist that further levels the playing field. On paper, three teens should have the edge over a blind man, but how quickly he puts them on the defensive
The Blind Man doesn’t have super senses or magically became invulnerable. He’s a regular guy that doesn’t let being blind stop him.
His blindness in a long of ways actually makes him more menacing and formidable. And when he fails to get the upper hand, he’s got a killer service dog. From a very atypical perspective, that makes The Blind Man a rare empowering thriller villain.
Lang is terrific. He’s the steely, stone-faced monster that makes Don’t Breathe so chilling. The rest of the cast handles the demands of running around panicked just fine. Alvarez and Sayagues limiting the group to three teens assure the body count is low, but it makes the near escapes and thrills all the more intense.
The film falters in the final act as the characters suddenly stop using common sense to prolong the ending. There are probably two or three times Don’t Breathe should have ended. One of the false finishes would have left audiences as stunned as the ending of the original Saw. While not as pleasant an ending it certainly would have people talking.
Don’t Breathe isn’t revolutionary, but it’s an exceptional thriller. It does exactly as promised by keeping viewers on edge for an engrossing, nerve-rattling experience.
Rating: 8 out of 10
Photo Credit: Gordon Timpen/SONY PICTURES ENTERTAINMENT INC.