The urban graveyard of Detroit has been the setting for a number of very different genre flicks lately, from Jim Jarmusch's vampire film Only Lovers Left Alive to the sexually-transmitted haunting horror It Follows, and now the gripping, maniacally fun home invasion thriller, Don't Breathe. It's almost like the desperation and despair permeating the rundown Michigan city has created a new strain of cinematic barbarity that filmmakers are reveling in. Fede Alvarez, who burst onto the scene with his exceptionally gory Evil Dead remake, treads similarly violent waters in Don't Breathe, but he also shows a deft hand at playing the audience's senses like a fiddle, perfect for a movie in which we are taught not to trust any of our senses fully.
Imagine if somebody tried to rob blind Zatoichi and he was in a REALLY bad mood and that's the awesomeness you're in store for. Stephen Lang, who played the mean-ass villain in James Cameron's Avatar, is a blind ex-Gulf War vet living a hermit's existence in the ghost town of a city. He'd prefer to be left alone but there are no shortage of moronic 20-somethings out there looking for a quick score. The idiots in question are Rocky (Jane Levy, of Alvarez's Evil Dead), her gangsta beau Money (Daniel Zovatto of It Follows), and Alex (Dylan Minnette), who is stuck in Rocky's friend zone with no way out. Rocky hopes to escape with her daughter to California and start over, but to do that she'll need cash. Lots of it. The trio have been pulling off petty crimes, busting into homes of the few wealthy who remain. We see them in action early on, giving us a peek into their personalities and motivations. Alex is reserved and careful, Rocky a combination of hopeful and forlorn, while Money is a straight-up hood who breaks things and pees on expensive rugs.
Alex's dad runs the security company used in most of the homes, which is how they pull off their robberies. They do have a certain code, however, and yet they break every rule in it when they learn of the blind man's apparent wealth, earned in a legal settlement after his daughter was accidentally killed. Assuming he'll be an easy mark, they decide to bust in to his home while he's there to steal his stash of cash. Little do they know this guy is no regular mark. Alvarez's attention to technical detail comes in handy right from the start in a sweeping one-shot tour of the blind man's home, teasing every eventual twist that will befall the intruders. Rusty tools, a hidden pistol, heavy door locks, all things that will be put to gory use later on.
But nothing is as menacing as the blind man himself, who emerges out of nowhere in a moment that will send your heart leaping into your throat. Alvarez and co-writer Rodo Sayagues have fashioned a story that is simple yet hearty enough to carry moments that are shocking and others that are outright ridiculous in the way most horror movies are. There are revelations that emerge which are pretty far-out there and others that are designed to be as gross as possible. Two words: turkey baster. Whether going for jump scares, and there are more than a few good ones, or laughs the high stakes remain the same. This blind guy will kill whoever he gets his hands on, and he won't make their deaths easy.
You'd think a movie about a blind man would be aces at its employment of darkness to illicit fear, but it's actually Alvarez's use of silence that is the most effective. Every tortured attempt to remain quiet is a potential giveaway of their position to the stalking blind man, a physically imposing figure despite his handicap. Darkness does come into play, of course, as he evens the odds by shutting out the lights in a cramped, messy sub-basement. As they clatter around giving themselves away he knows every corner all too well, making for a nerve-racking experience seen through the grey of night vision. It's also possible the blind man has the best sidekick attack dog ever. He alone is worth a few nightmares.
The third act goes a little of the rails as Alvarez introduces an unnecessarily disgusting sexual element into the mix, one that feels like it should have been left in some other movie. To his credit, Lang sells it as well as he possibly can through the blind man's single-minded focus on his disturbing goals. Meanwhile, Levy once again is the model of dogged determination and fierceness, giving one Hell of a physically challenging performance. She gets put through the ringer like nobody else does in this film, and we find ourselves rooting for Rocky despite her being clearly in the wrong. Some monsters are worse than others, though, and Don't Breathe makes shining a light on them an exhilarating good time.
Rating: 3.5 out of 5