Home invasion films are a well-worn genre, but Don’t Breathe makes a smart twist on the formula. Imagine Home Alone from the perspective of the robbers, only instead of Macaulay Culkin setting traps it was an old, murderous man.
Alex (Dylan Minnette; Prisoners), Rocky (Jane Levy; Evil Dead), and Money (Daniel Zovatto; It Follows) are three 20-somethings making their living robbing homes and selling the goods on the black market. Alex’s dad runs a home security firm, so they are able to get passcodes and keys to enter and exit houses unnoticed. Rocky and Money have the intention of leaving town if they can get the funds, but they aren’t making enough off each house. Fortunately, they get a tip about an old man (Stephen Lang; Avatar) who won a six figure cash settlement after his daughter was killed in a car accident by a wealthy teenager. He lives by himself in a mostly empty part of town and supposedly has the settlement money inside. The best part is the man is blind, so it’s an easy job…or is it?
Like the recent horror hit It Follows, Don’t Breathe uses modern day Detroit as its setting. Maybe it says more about the economic situation of the city than anything else, but the graffiti covered facades and overgrown lawns of the long abandoned neighboring properties hint at the situation to come. Why would someone, especially someone with a large sum of money, still live in a place like that?
As the team breaks into the house, director Fede Alvarez (Evil Dead) establishes the setting. It would be easy for the movie to feel like a bottle film, restricted to one main location because of financial reasons not creative ones, but that is not the case. The home has a maze-like architecture and Alvarez uses impressive cinematography early on to explore it. The camera weaves in and out of rooms, rarely cutting, and lingers on objects bound to be of importance later. These shots lay the foundation for the film and inform the audience of the possibilities that exist. In less skilled filmmaking, plot twists feel cheap and convenient, but here each twist is subtly foreshadowed early on. You may have an idea that something will be important, but chances are you won’t be able to guess how.
The blind man is not what he seems and the team of robbers soon find themselves in trouble. Lang dominates the screen with his intensity. He becomes animal-like. Lang rarely speaks and relies on his other senses to find the robbers. He sticks his nose in the air and sniffs like a feral wolf searching for prey. Unlike the intruders, he knows his house intimately and takes full advantage of this as he walks through the halls feeling his way across the house.
His blindness makes for incredibly tense encounters. In most home invasion films, the characters are only worried that they will be spotted, but here they have to be wary of a tiny creak of the wood floors setting off Lang’s hypersensitive hearing. It also makes for near misses that come uncomfortably close to confrontations. Lang can’t see his uninvited guests and often moves within inches of them.
Lang’s sheer physicality makes him a terrifying threat. He is revealed to be a veteran whose sinewy arms and fast, focused movements show his prowess. At one point during my screening a woman shouted “He’s worse than the Terminator!” and she was right. Lang’s efforts are unrelenting and the justice he delivers is unforgiving.
In the last act, the film layers on multiple twists that will divide audiences. Some may view them as unrealistic while others will see them as depraved and unnecessary. Each additional wrinkle pulls the story further away from believable and turns Lang from a man to a monster, reducing the credibility the film had established. Yet, Lang is able to overcome these missteps. Even as the third act falters, the strong setup, creative encounters, and Lang’s presence make Don’t Breathe a film of often unbearable tension.