A trio of low-level thieves - comprised of Dylan Minnette’s level-headed Alex, Daniel Zovatto’s brash Money, and Jane Levy’s eager Rocky - decides to take on one last score, the type that will make them rich enough so that Rocky can fulfill her dream of taking her sister out from under the roof of their neglectful mother in order to start a new life in California. Their target: A blind Army vet living with his dog in an abandoned neighborhood who’s sitting on a boatload of cash that was awarded to him after his young daughter was killed in an auto accident. Easy, right?
Unfortunately for them, things quickly go south, as the vet - played by Stephen Lang and simply named The Blind Man in the film’s credits - turns the tables on them, trapping them within the walls of his home and doing his best to ensure that none of them make it out alive.
This is the premise of Don’t Breathe, the latest film from director Fede Alvarez, whose last horror outing was 2013’s Evil Dead. Unlike that project, however, Don’t Breathe rarely relies on blood and guts to shock viewers, instead ratcheting up the tension to deliver a final product that leans more into thriller territory than outright horror, keeping everyone guessing as to how anyone is going to get out of this alive.
It’s a relentless movie, and one whose hour and a half runtime goes by without hiccup. There’s very little fat in the narrative, allowing the film to get in, do what it needs to do, and get out before overstaying its welcome. The trailers have already given away a big twist in regards to The Blind Man being more than he seems, but there’s still more to it than that, with a further late-game twist that caught me by surprise leading to a scene that had my entire audience on edge and disgusted. It’s a risky moment that people will be talking about for years to come in discussion of the film, and though it’s easy to see how it can cross the line into uncomfortable territory for some to the point it disconnects them from the film, it worked for me.
As I mentioned, Don’t Breathe thrives on its tension, which it doles out in spades. Scenes where our “heroes” are thrown into utter darkness and hunted by The Blind Man or being attacked by his vicious dog in a setting completely evocative of Cujo are fantastic, and work so well because the performances, particularly from Levy and Minnette, are strong enough to get us invested in the characters’ well-being despite the otherwise reprehensible fact they chose to rob a blind man.
That said, it all wouldn’t be as tense if both the characters and audience members didn’t have something to fear, and on that front, Stephen Lang absolutely delivers as The Blind Man. Despite his seeming disadvantage, these characters are in his playground, and the character himself is delightfully bone-chilling, straddling the line between despicable and sympathetic, giving us a surprisingly complicated human “monster.” The narrative of Don’t Breathe may follow the younger cast, but this is Lang’s show to steal, and steal it he does.
Of course, as with many films of its ilk, Don’t Breathe has to overcome a number of logic-related hurdles along the way. Some, like the fact one character in particular undergoes a huge amount of physical punishment and still continues to keep standing, are brushed off, asking the audience to just go with it. Others, like the inevitable early question of why they wouldn’t use their cell phones to call for help, are dealt with head-on, addressed as part of the narrative itself. As a result, the film’s willingness to tackle the types of issues and concerns some have when it comes to genre fare like this makes it easier for viewers to accept what it chooses to gloss over, allowing the whole thing to chug along without taking us out of it.
On a technical level, the sound design here is stellar, particularly in moments when characters are forced to stay silent, The Blind Man listening for even the faintest of creaks in a floorboard or swish of cloth. Beyond that, the cinematography is clear and concise, its effectiveness summed up in an early sequence wherein the trio, having just broken in, move throughout the house, the camera seamlessly following them from room to room in an effort to give the audience a perfect sense of the house’s geography while highlighting key elements - a hidden gun, a bell, etc. - that come into play later.
Genre films like this also often tend to set up or, at least, leave the door open for sequels, and Don’t Breathe is no exception, with an open ending suggesting more to come that could necessitate a complete formula change. Whether that eventually comes to fruition remains to be seen, obviously, but even if it doesn’t, the ending still works as a solid bookend to the story we’ve been given, leaving the audience with a sense of unease and uncertainty that fits with the rest of the film.
Like some of the most recent genre stuff I’ve seen theatrically recently, like The Shallows or Lights Out, Don’t Breathe doesn’t break new ground. Fortunately, though, it’s one hell of a ride, one with solid performances, incredible suspense, and enough meat on the bones despite a slim runtime to make it something I'm already looking forward to revisiting now and again for years to come and introducing to people who are going to inevitably miss it while its in theaters.
Pick a Month: