For over two-thirds of the exhilarating horror movie Don’t Breathe, young burglars are trapped in the home of a blind man they’re attempting to rob, which doesn’t sound like an impossible situation until you consider that the victim, a military veteran, has defense skills keener than Rutger Hauer in Blind Fury. The gimmick here is the victim’s heightened sense of sound makes any action of any kind — a creak of the floorboard, the vibrations of a cellphone, and, of course, breathing too heavily — potentially deadly for the burglars, who barely squeezed into the house and can’t find an easy exit. They’re essentially in a swimming pool against the world’s greatest “Marco Polo” player.
Though blindness has been an effective component of horror films past, it’s usually a tool to heighten vulnerability, like Audrey Hepburn fending off intruders in Wait Until Dark or Jodie Foster being stalked by a serial killer with night vision glasses in The Silence of the Lambs. By flipping the script in Don’t Breathe, co-writer/director Fede Alvarez makes movement itself a grave proposition, to the point where even a tracking shot feels like leap into the abyss, as if the audience itself is in danger just for looking around. And so Alvarez, owing a plain debt to David Fincher’s genre exercise Panic Room, twists the knife simply by keeping the camera moving through this confined space, diving into every room and every crevice, tempting fate right along with his characters. He’s crafted a deliciously nasty, unceasing thrill machine.
Using the Rust Belt squalor of a ravaged Detroit neighborhood as a backdrop, Alvarez offers the rare home invasion scenario where the invaders are the heroes. Rocky (Jane Levy), Money (Daniel Zovatto), and Alex (Dylan Minnette) have a profitable bling ring operation: Using the keys and codes from a security company run by Alex’s father, they raid jewels and other valuables — but no cash — from rich people when they’re out of the house. But they throw that careful methodology out the window for a shot at an easy score, one that will liberate Rocky and her daughter from trailer-park hell and take them west to the beaches of sunny California: A blind man (Stephen Lang), living alone in an isolated home, is sitting on a high six-figure settlement from losing his only daughter to vehicular manslaughter. It’ll be like taking candy for the saddest and most helpless of babies.
Or so the trio thinks. For one, they have to rob the house with the resident in it, which they’ve never tried before. Then they quickly discover that he keeps it like a fortress, with bars on the windows, a large fence, a snarling attack dog, and multiple locks on the doors, in addition to an armed security system. Once inside, it doesn’t get any easier, because the blind man is an imposing figure who seems to have prepared for this very scenario, perhaps under the reasonable expectation that someone would try to take his money some day. He’s like the giant in “Jack in the Beanstalk.” Fee-fi-fo-fum!
A different director could follow this story beat for beat and make the year’s dumbest horror film, but Alvarez turns a thin high-concept premise into coup de cinema that recalls Inside, the extreme French thriller about a pregnant woman fleeing a covetous predator on Christmas Eve. Alvarez directed the hyper-intense Evil Dead remake a few years ago and he brings the same lean, stylish, hard-R aesthetic to Don’t Breathe, which gets bleaker and more disturbing with every turn of the plot. Alvarez crosses the boundaries of good taste as if they never existed at all.
Yet Don’t Breathe isn’t intended as a provocation or even the sort of grisly wallow that defined the “torture porn” renaissance of the early-to-mid aughts. At heart, it’s a generous, crowd-pleasing entertainment, as artfully constructed as 2014’s It Follows/The Babadook double whammy, but more inclined to deliver the expected genre payoffs. Alvarez keeps on topping himself — one sequence stages Cujo more effectively in five minutes than the original film managed in 90 — but his handle on suspense fundamentals, like carefully establishing spatial relationships or setting up elements that will bear fruit later, makes all the difference. Great horror films are feats of direction: Scoff all you like about teenagers getting thrashed by a blind war vet, but it’s Alvarez who gets the last laugh.