“Don’t Breathe” is a late summer surprise, a superbly crafted genre piece thick with suspense and light on mercy. It’s best seen in a packed theater, with a crowd that screams and laughs as director Fede Alvarez doesn’t so much play them like a piano as beat them like a drum.
Set in Detroit, the film is about three friends trying to fund their escape from the city through burglary. One is the son of an alarm company worker and they steal the codes to enter the homes, careful to only take property (not cash) and make sure the take stays below $10K (which would elevate it to a more serious offense). When their leader, Money (Daniel Zovatto), hears about a war veteran living alone with $300,000 from a law settlement, his girlfriend Rocky (Jane Levy) thinks it’s the perfect chance to break the rules one time so she can leave for California with her daughter. When the trio scopes out the house and finds out that the man (Stephen Lang) is blind, even nervous Alex (Dylan Minnette) thinks it might be a good last score. But once they’ve entered the home, the three find that the man isn’t as helpless as they thought, and even has his own twisted secrets.
Alvarez wastes no time getting the three into the home and from there, the film is 90 minutes of nearly nonstop tension as the burglars try and evade the man in silence — and sometimes, pitch darkness. It’s a simple setup, but an ingenious one, an inversion of “Wait Until Dark.” The director’s previous film, the remake of “Evil Dead,” was a gore-soaked freak show. With “Don’t Breathe,” Alvarez pulls back on the blood and trades it in for suspense, constantly finding new ways to ratchet up the tension and keep the audience off balance. To say too much would be to spoil it, but the film is never tedious; there’s constantly a new danger or complication that makes everything go horribly wrong. I found myself tense throughout the run time, holding my breath and clutching the armrest, with very few moments of respite. I was sore when I walked out the theater. I love it when a filmmaker can do this.
If “Evil Dead” allowed Alvarez to indulge his love for manic Raimi-esque splatter, “Don’t Breathe” finds him channeling his inner David Fincher. Much of the early go feels like an homage to “Panic Room” as the camera glides through every room and up through the floorboards, establishing the geography of the home and creating a sense of claustrophobia. Alvarez directs with confidence, masterfully delivering every shock and twisting the screws tightly, finding creative ways to cram his characters into new nooks and crannies of the house or some new terror for them to face.
There’s also a bit of early Wes Craven here, too. Like Craven, Alvarez draws inspiration and subtext from current culture, setting his story in a neighborhood decimated by economic hardship. The exteriors were filmed in an abandoned block of Detroit and, like last year’s phenomenal “It Follows,” the location soaks the film in an atmosphere of dread. There are also hints of class disparity and the plight of today’s veterans woven in, giving the film a palpable anger and sense of despair. Like Craven, Alvarez can also be one mean SOB, and he’s not afraid to punish his characters and put them through the wringer. “Don’t Breathe” might be light on blood, but it’s a brutal film. Alvarez is a fan of letting his characters claw their way to what they think is safety, only to have the bottom (or a skylight) fall out from under them, and their attempts to survive the ordeal lead them into harrowing, agonizing situations. This is a mean, unrelenting movie, and you can almost hear the director giggling as the audience collectively exhales, only to find that things just got worse.
The three leads endure all the pain Alvarez inflicts, but I worry that it’s easy to dismiss them. The film establishes their personalities early on, with Rocky the dreamer, Money the wannabee thug and Alex the pining wallflower. They’re stock roles (and Zovatto plays his pretty broadly), but they determine the crew’s dynamics and how they’ll react when things go to hell. Once they encounter the blind man, however, the majority of the film takes place in silence, and the actors not only have to endure the physical demands, but also sell their wide-eyed terror. A sequence in the home’s cellar, where the lights are turned out, is particularly grueling, and I have to wonder just how much acting was going on in selling their fear. It’s physical, grueling work and the kind of acting that unfortunately goes unappreciated all too often.
“Don’t Breathe” is an of-the-moment movie, one of those theatrical experiences that grabs you by the collar and demands your attention from start to finish. It’s visceral, tense and terrifying from its unsettling opening shot to its creepy finale. Its mad dash to the finale threatens to topple over in a series of escalating twists and fakeouts, but it never loses its momentum. Even a third-act veer into gross-out exploitation fails to derail the film, as Alvarez knows how to mix a bit of winking humor at the absurdity along with the suspense. It’s not until you’re in your car that you’ll begin to pick apart some of the plot threads and inconsistencies. And by that point, does it even matter?
There’s not much that sticks to the ribs with “Don’t Breathe,” although some attempts at subtext make it interesting. It’s a superb technical exercise that grabs your attention for 90 minutes and then shakes you loose after. I don’t know if there’s much beyond that, but sometimes there doesn’t need to be. Sometimes you just want a movie to do what it does and do it well. And “Don’t Breathe” does what it does fantastically. I apologize to the theater where I screened it; I’m pretty sure my fingernails made indentations in the armrest.