The home invasion thriller Don’t Breathe is director Fede Alvarez’ first new effort since he shocked the Evil Dead franchise back to life in 2013. This one, co-scripted by the Uruguayan filmmaker and Rodo Sayagues, takes the premise of old trapped-in-a-house thrillers like Lady in a Cage, Wait Until Dark and Panic Room and ups the ante with extra shots of adrenaline and claustrophobia. It also adds contemporary social relevance with its shots of economically ravaged Detroit neighborhoods, and it lays on some serpentine twists viewers may find surprising, if repulsive.
The movie is revolves around a trio of teen thieves (Dylan Minnette, Jane Levy and Daniel Zavatto) who have been targeting some of the city’s remaining wealthy citizens. We sort of like two of the characters but not really. Minnette (excellent as the voice of “reason”) plays a guy with inside knowledge, since his dad owns a security company that services the richer homes. Levy is good as a woman trying to afford a better life for herself and her preschool age daughter. Zavatto, meanwhile, plays a goon who’s just up for messing with people.
After the three sedate a guard-dog Rottweiler, they quickly learn that they’ve more than met their match with the dog’s owner—a blind, cash-rich Gulf War veteran, played wth scene-stealing intensity and, mostly, silence by Stephen Lang, still looking about as ripped as in his Avatar days. “The Blind Man,” as the credits call him, is the only remaining denizen of a vacated, hollowed-out neighborhood. Living in a decrepit house of horrors equipped with an increasingly brutal arsenal of tricks and traps, he makes the movie pretty much a relentless series of chases from room to room, a sadistic mousetrap exploited cleverly by Alvarez and cinematographer Pedro Luque, with stunning sound design throughout.
Best of all is a nail-biter sequence in which the Blind Man is able to exploit his superior hearing capacity while the burglars must disguise the sound of their movements and—you guessed it—their breathing. The dread and tension build so masterfully that by the time the criminal intruders get themselves in a locked basement and the final secrets get revealed, they wish to hell they’d never messed with this particular homeowner. Some viewers may feel the same while deliciously sweating their way through Don’t Breathe. It’s a sharp and savvy thriller for an age in which more than half of Americans seem to feel less secure than ever—a fear that politicians tend to stoke despite violent crime and violence being down significantly since the ‘90s.