In a blighted corner of Michigan, a trio of young ne’er-do-wells are enjoying a successful run of home-invasion robberies. There’s Rocky (Jane Levy), who comes from an abusive home and still lives there, along with her kid sister; her boyfriend Money (Daniel Zovatto), an unrepentant dirtbag; and Alex (Dylan Minnette), a sensitive sort whose unrequited love for Rocky keeps him enmeshed in the operation and whose access to his father’s security company materials makes their robberies possible. The trio decides to end their tenure with the proverbial Last Big Score, setting their sights upon an old man (Stephen Lang) who lives in a dilapidated Addams mansion in a deserted slum. This man, it’s been reported, has received a huge settlement after the vehicular manslaughter of his daughter from the wealthy family of the young girl responsible for the accident. The thieves think relieving this fossil of his fortune should be a snap. Added bonus: the guy is blind.
This is the setup for Don’t Breathe, the latest film from Fede Alvarez, the director of 2013’s brutal, brutally unnecessary redo of Evil Dead. If Evil Dead proved to be a gruesomely competent bunt, Don’t Breathe is a swing for the fences. It announces Alvarez as a person of interest in the genre. The film, more a siege thriller than a standard horror offering, is a twisty rush of cat-and-mouse tension. Once the thieves force their way into the blind man’s home, having successfully disabled his bear of an attack dog with a drugged treat, it quickly becomes clear that this job isn’t going to be the cinch that they expected. The blind man shows a resistance to their attempt to gas him into unconsciousness and, having served in Iraq (where he lost his sight), proves to be a formidable adversary, brandishing a gun and locking the intruders inside the house. They may have their sight, but that’s the only advantage they have over him.
Bereft of supernatural elements, Don’t Breathe doesn’t take its cue from the recent spate of haunted-house thrillers, despite seeming firmly within that vein in its advertising. The horror film it bears the strongest resemblance to is Wes Craven’s 1991 oddity The People Under The Stairs, which also featured disadvantaged thieves breaking into a grotty mansion in pursuit of riches and finding themselves at the mercy of its fearsome occupant(s) and their dark secrets. The film also recalls this year’s solid but curiously overpraised Green Room, another grisly thriller about young people stuck in a desolate place and fighting for their lives against both armed assailants and vicious canines, though I think Don’t Breathe is the stronger film. Green Room was more chaotic and less inventive with its mayhem, and its elder antagonist, a withdrawn Patrick Stewart, less effective.
As point of fact, the blind man is the strongest component of Don’t Breathe’s success. Though possessing redoubtable combat skills, he isn’t a Daredevil-esque superhuman. There isn’t any indication that his other senses are especially heightened, at least not to a degree that affords him a substantial edge in the conflict. More importantly, the film adroitly muddies our feelings toward him for quite some time. After all, the three youths are presented to us as venal, self-serving criminals. Rocky might have dreams of using the ill-gotten gains as a means of spiriting her sister away to a better life in California and Alex is bequeathed a semblance of a conscience, but these are fundamentally irredeemable protagonists, people possessing virtually no qualms about separating a blind, grieving veteran from his tragically-accrued windfall. When the blind man fights back, he’s doing so as a besieged homeowner struggling to protect what’s his, and it’s difficult to fault him for his actions, especially since the film doesn’t depict him as savoring the carnage nor having that much of an upper hand at all. It’s only when some of his skeletons are brought out into the light later on that our sympathies are grudgingly awarded to the robbers as the lesser of the two evils.
The film is similarly slippery about the dominance of the two opposing forces. The blind man is the cat for most of the film, but near the end, the film begins to see-saw relentlessly, the power vacillating repeatedly from one side to the other. This volleying of ascendancy keeps the suspense mounting, leaving the audience uncertain of what’s to happen from moment to moment (though the film’s opening shot, depicting a late-in-the-game development, works against some of the surprises by establishing an inevitability). It’s that ambiguity that keeps Don’t Breathe so much more interesting than it could have been. By giving us heroes who are unlikable monsters and a villain who isn’t a clear-cut bogeyman, the film wriggles free of much of the convention that frequently keeps much of the horror genre bound and shackled.
Of the three younger leads, Levy, a returnee from Evil Dead, fares the best, imbuing Rocky with a hard-bitten weariness. Lang is the other standout. His is a mostly physical performance, but when the blind man does eventually speak, he does so in a flat, unearthly croak that is truly unsettling. The film also winds up taking a few truly squeamish side-trips, intriguingly arriving at some deeply uncomfortable places, even by horror standards (though a juvenile gross-out streak it throws into the stew feels misplaced). What it all amounts to is a wonderfully effective thrill-ride, one that continually challenges the audience’s expectations and sympathies. The film ends on a blatant sequel setup, because of course it does, but Don’t Breathe doesn’t seem to lend itself to the whims of the industry’s franchise requirements. It thrives as a self-contained chamber piece. There perhaps isn’t enough oxygen left over to keep going.
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