The horror-thriller Don’t Breathe, directed by Fede Alvarez (of the Evil Dead remake), gets a lot of mileage out its simple premise: amateur burglars rob a blind man’s house and it backfires, horribly. It’s a home-invasion storyline reshuffled, and it goes to show that the strongest horror movies often make the most out of uncomplicated scenarios. The essential ideas for classics like Night of the Living Dead and Halloween can be summed up rather easily: corpses rise to devour the living, and homicidal mental patient escapes, respectively. Don’t Breathe is likewise built on a strong foundational conceit. That’s not to say, as fresh and suspenseful as it may be, that it’s perfectly executed. The characters make some harebrained decisions that I’m still scratching my head about. But I was engrossed from beginning to end, and I admired both the originality of its concept and the ingenuity of its presentation.
Based in and around the vacant, dilapidated areas of Detroit, the story follows Rocky (Jane Levy), a young woman from a rough home with dreams of escaping to sunny California with her younger sister. To earn the necessary cash, she burglarizes homes with her friend Alex (Dylan Minnette) and boyfriend Money (Daniel Zovatto). These swindlers are smarter than your average breakers-and-enterers, at least in theory, since Alex, whose father works at a security company, has access to equipment that can bypass the alarm systems on safeguarded domiciles. One day Money learns about a major score at a broken-down old house inhabited by a broken-down old army vet (Stephen Lang) who won over 300 grand in a lawsuit. Despite cautious Alex’s initial protests, they drive over there in the dead of night with intentions to break in, subdue the slumbering homeowner with a DIY chloroform bomb, and search for the loot, which they assume, must be hidden somewhere inside.
Like any good horror, or heist movie, for that matter, things don’t quite go according to plan. They soon discover that their victim is visually impaired. That should make things easier, if he weren’t also more resourceful and resilient than they anticipated, turning the tables and trapping them inside. Don’t Breathe could be described as the inverse of the Audrey Hepburn classic Wait Until Dark, wherein heroin smugglers terrorize a blind woman whose home, they believe, stashes valuable narcotics. Here, the blind one does the terrorizing and the intruders become the prey, a clever reversal that allows the director some opportunities for novel staging. The characters can stand literally face-to-face with danger, but remain unharmed, so long as they don’t move, speak or breathe loudly. (Remember Sam Neil standing still while the T-Rex passed by him unawares.) It’s quite unnerving. Shot mostly in grungy, gray interiors, Alvarez captures a mood of decrepit funhouse malevolence that accentuates his tale of desperate youths at the mercy of a lonesome codger with little in the world besides his rundown home and its mysterious contents.
For all its stylistic flair, though, Don’t Breathe makes it somewhat difficult to know who to root for. As menacing as The Blind Man was, I couldn’t help sympathizing with him against three ne’re-do-wells who victimize handicapped veterans and then, when things go wrong, make their situation worse with idiotic decisions. (Why do they always go into the basement?!?) The most likable burglar is Alex, mostly because he’s the only sensible one, relatively speaking, and because he’s motivated by his infatuation with Rocky. Rocky, on the other hand, ostensibly the heroine, is so greedy and chooses the prospect of wealth over safety on so many occasions, that she doesn’t exactly warm herself to us. Are we supposed to care if she finds the money or not? Toward the end some surprise twists make it almost impossible to root for The Blind Man, but I wasn’t exactly cheering on the burglars, either, nor was I excited by my own moral ambivalence. Some might laud the film for provoking such uncertainty, though I wouldn’t, because Alvarez never makes a point out of questioning who the true villains are.
That said, Don’t Breathe is one of the better suspense films I’ve seen in awhile. It explores its unique premise as far as one could hope, maintains the tension throughout and kept me absorbed in the drama. Minus a few too many fake deaths and repetitive captures, escapes and recaptures, it’s lean too — ideal for a thriller. Even more, I found it interesting that here is yet another strong horror film set around condemned urban areas of Detroit, after last year’s It Follows and 2014’s Only Lovers Left Alive. It seems The Motor City, with its air of downtrodden malaise, its necropolis of broken capitalism, has become, to many filmmakers, the Transylvania of post-Recession America, where things don’t just go bump in the night; they go broke overnight. There may be no better place in the lower 48 to lose one’s breath.