Film Review: Don't Breathe

Three young burglars who think a blind man is easy pickings are in for a surprise in this tense, expertly crafted thriller.
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Alex (Dylan Minnette), Rocky (Jane Levy) and Money (Daniel Zovatto) all want out of their rundown Detroit neighborhoods and family troubles and together they bring a decent set of skills to the task of stealing their way to a tidy starting-over nest egg. Alex's dad owns a home-security business, so he has the access and know-how required to disable a customer's alarm system. Money has nerve to burn, though it would be nice if he were a little less volatile. His girlfriend, Rocky, is smart and good with details, the real brains of the bunch.

And they've found a perfect target: a blind man (Stephen Lang) who lives in a rundown house in a nearly abandoned neighborhood and collected a $300,000 settlement after his daughter was killed by a reckless driver. Yes, he's a Gulf War veteran who lost his sight in the line of duty—but he's a friendless, middle-aged recluse and he's blind. From where they stand, it looks as though the biggest thing standing between them and the cash he's hoarding somewhere in his modest home is a dog. How hard could it be to take it away? As anyone who's seen a trailer or TV spot for the film can easily surmise, very hard indeed. The never-named man may be blind, but he's not deaf and he's combat-trained and in fighting trim, armed and paranoid. Getting into his house is harder than they expected, what with all the security bars and serious locks, but the real nightmare is getting out.

Don’t Breathe belongs to a subset of home-invasion movies whose variously at-a-disadvantage victims are overwhelmingly female—from sightless waifs Audrey Hepburn and Mia Farrow (1967's Wait Until Dark and 1971's See No Evil, respectively), to the deaf heroine of Hush or the agoraphobic Naomi Watts in Shut In (both 2016). Director and co-writer Fede Alvarez (who did the 2013 Evil Dead reboot) shifts the dynamic dramatically; it's still multiple intruders against a lone homeowner, but youthful arrogance is its own form of blindness and by the time the three teenagers realize how badly they've misread the situation, they're well and truly in trouble. And no one's entirely good or bad; the intruders are thieves, but they're genuinely trapped by circumstances over which they have little control and desperate to escape before they're mired in dead-end lives. Their would-be victim is bereaved, alone, twice their age and disabled, but there's also more to his situation than is immediately apparent... quite a bit more.

Don't Breathe is an unabashed genre piece, but it's a good one that's predicated on using conventions to set up expectations and skillfully turn them on their heads, rather than hewing to a formula and slapping a layer of fancy visual flourishes on top.

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