Marketed ostensibly as a horror film, Don’t Breathe is tense rather than terrifying and sits much more comfortably within the thriller genre (if we must insist on such labels). A home invasion gone wrong is the premise of this latest offering from Uruguayan director Fede Alvarez, whose only other feature production thus far is the 2013 Evil Dead remake. Whilst the film follows a fairly typical trajectory in many ways (you can predict the order in which the characters will meet their demise the moment you meet them and that is exactly how it plays out) and the idea of the victims turning the tables on their attackers in such a situation is certainly nothing new (Home Alone, You’re Next), Alvarez has tossed in a few narrative surprises that do make Don’t Breathe stand apart.
Mired in the misery of depression-ravaged Detroit, Rocky (Jane Levy), Alex (Dylan Minnette) and Money (Daniel Zovatto) undertake a series of break-ins, using information from the security company for whom Alex’s father works to gain access to properties. Having consciously avoided any large scale operations that would bring severe consequences should they be caught, the group change tack when they learn about a man who supposedly has a large quantity of cash stored in his house. Their target is a former soldier who received a large compensation payout following the death of his daughter. He lives alone in an otherwise abandoned suburb and also happens to be blind, a fact that instils a false sense of security amongst the intrepid trio. Alvarez, who also co-wrote the screenplay with Rodo Sayagues, needs us to like at least one of the three crooks so that we care enough about what happens to them to go the distance. This is done with a distinct lack of subtlety mind you; a solitary scene in which Rocky’s mother is presented as such an utterly heinous construct that we are expected to forgive anything that Rocky might do to secure the money needed to relocate herself and her young sister to California.
As is to be expected, things don’t go according to plan and all manner of mayhem is unleashed when the intended victim (Stephen Lang) – who is known only as The Blind Man – proves to be much more of a threat than they could have imagined. Our hapless home invaders soon find themselves under assault, battling to escape with their lives and it goes without saying that not everybody will. As more of the house is revealed, we also learn more about the blind man and how his determination to eliminate the intruders is about much more than simply trying to protect any money that he may have stashed away. It is these narrative flourishes – some of which I certainly didn’t see coming – that push the film into territory that is a cut above so many others of this ilk.
There are certainly plenty of moments of high tension and, on more than one occasion, the events seem to have run their course only for the story to kick back into life, but the scariest part of it all is the utter desolation of suburban Detroit. Houses abandoned and entire suburbs devoid of any human habitation; a city ravaged by recession. Levy (TV’s Suburgatory) is the key to making it work and she is impressive in presenting Rocky as much more than the typical one-dimensional doomed damsels that too often populate such stories, while Lang’s blind antagonist is perhaps a little too effective in dealing with the intruders to engender our sympathies as the victim of the piece. Definitely not a horror movie, Don’t Breathe delivers plenty of gruesome goings-on but is unlikely to leave you with any lasting nightmares.