There is something uniquely horrific about the concept of a stranger breaking into your home while you sleep. Your house is your safe zone, your sanctuary. It is the one destination where a person should have absolute personal freedom. For someone to violate that space, to cross that invisible line of privacy and solitude, there is little in the world that is more disconcerting and unnerving.
Many feel they know how they would react, and if you ask any red-blooded American male, they’ll be the first to tell you how badass they secretly are and how they would dispatch scores of thieves at a clip with their chest-thumping machismo. What you never hear about, is what would the thieves do if this actually was the case, and the house they decided to infiltrate and violate just happened to harbor someone who is capable of just those things, and much worse?
That is the stance writer-director Fede Alvarez decides to take in his latest film, Don’t Breathe, and it’s one of the more intriguing twists on the ages-old ‘Home Invasion’ thriller plots we have seen routinely over the last couple of decades. Alvarez, along with co-writer Rodo Sayagues, concocted a story that begins with three young criminals, desperate to rob their way into a better life far away from their decaying city of Detroit. You read that right, we start with the criminals this time, not victim inside. Why? You’ll see.
Jane Levy rejoins her Evil Dead director as Rocky, a young woman clinging to the hope of that big score that will deliver her from the soiled streets of Detroit to the sandy beaches of California. Her partner, Money (Daniel Zovatto), finds the epitome of ‘too good to be true’ in a blind man (Stephen Lang) holed up in a dingy little house in a deserted part of town, apparently sitting on $300,000 in cold hard cash. They recruit their inside-man, the doe-eyed Alex (Dylan Minnette), and set off on what will obviously be an easy job. The guy can’t see and he’s a sad old man, what could go wrong?
These kids should watch a few more movies, because these are the gigs you always run the hell away from.
Once inside, the trio quickly realize this guy is not the easy mark they took him for. He’s trained military and apparently also did a stint at the Daredevil Academy as he glides through his home like the shark from Jaws. Our three degenerates have the tables turned and we, the audience, begin a long ride of squirming, hyperventilating and debating just who we should ultimately be rooting for.
That right there is the most masterful thing about Don’t Breathe. Even as the closing credits rolled, and all secrets have been exposed, I still couldn’t decide who I wanted to win this fight. There is so much more to the blind man than meets the eye, and Alvarez, Minnette, and especially Levy (give this woman a franchise already), do such a solid job of convincing us that, while Alex and Rocky are criminals shamefully robbing the handicapped, they are also fatally flawed human beings drowning under the weight of their tragic circumstances. They are Middle America.
For a guy in his 60s, Stephen Lang is still every inch the badass mofo he has been for years. In better shape than most 20 year-olds, Lang takes a token role and amps it up with an intensity and prowess films like these never see, and generally don’t deserve. Lang tackles the role by methodically planning and reacting to every situation as if he were truly unable to see, because we never once notice him breaking character or looking where we think he shouldn’t. This seems like a no-brainer, but I’ve seen so many films with blind characters who idiotically look directly at a character they should not even know is there or respond erratically to their environment, that when you find a performer tossing every inch of his soul into a basic genre piece like this, it deserves acknowledgement and applause. By the end of the film, if I would have run into Lang in a parking lot, I would have just handed him my ass and saved him the trouble of kicking it.
Alvarez impressed me with Evil Dead, and here even more so. The director eschews clichéd BOO scares and focuses on tense moments that pit all of our characters in the most dire of circumstances, as we try to decide who, if anyone, deserves to walk out of this house alive. Alvarez achieves this with a confidence that showcases his faith in both atmosphere and characters, a sorely lacking element in modern horror films.
It’s been days since I screened the film, and I’m still checking the closets for burglars and jacked-up blind guys. If I seem to be dancing wildly around the finer story points in Don’t Breathe, it’s for good reason. The discovery is part of this journey, and it will define greatly how you feel about the ride. Fede Alvarez has crafted a shockingly fresh take on a paint-by-numbers story with a small but stellar cast that culminates in one of the most anxiety-inducing thrillers in years, an absolute must-see for horror fans.
I’m also still holding my breath.