I have a feeling the pitch meeting for Don’t Breathe went a little like this:
“Hey, you know that scene in horror movies when the protagonist is trapped in a closet or something, and everyone is scared that the killer will find them as they walk by?”
“Well, let’s just do that.”
“A movie where the entire thing feels like that one, intense scene.”
“Don’t worry, it’ll be great.”
“I…uh…that sounds silly.”
The first guy was right: not only was the second guy very silly, but the movie is undeniably great.
But in every aspect, a movie about a group of thieving youngsters being hunted down by a blind man shouldn’t be this great—but it is. It’s 90 minutes of relentless, gripping, absolute fear where every moment feels like the killer could swing the closet door open at any moment and grab the young starlet. No CGI demons, no creepy nuns, no Ann Coulter; just a dark, creaky house and a madman on the loose.
Of course, all this mayhem happens to a group of young folks. There’s the young female, Rocky (Jane Levy) who wants nothing more than to raise (or thieve) a little cash so she can venture away from her abusive mother; there’s the young man, Alex (Dylan Minnette) who loves Rocky from afar and is constantly reminding the group to avoid going overboard as to not face serious legal repercussion; and there’s the douche, Money (Daniel Zovatto) who is just a douche. The latter is particularly terrible—as all people who casually use the word “bro” in earnest usually are—and is probably the reason why this trio are horrendous thieves. They bust into houses with no masks or hats, letting their hair fall everywhere, while Money pisses on the floor and probably spits on things, and then openly (and loudly) discusses their next “score” in an echo-y dining hall.
This next big, “masterfully executed” heist involves robbing an old army vet who happens to be quite blind (Stephen Lang). They break into the home with the tact of a drunken horse, only to discover that Blind Man is much more aware of his surroundings than they thought…and also has a dark secret (dun, dun, dun!). Thankfully, Mr. Douche is killed first for trying to act all cool and such, which leaves Rocky and Alex trapped inside the home after No-Eyes Johnson barricades the house like a doomsday prepper.
This is where the terror kicks in and never ceases. Blind Man (his character has no name in the film, unlike the shark in Jaws, which was obviously named Sharky) doesn’t speak much, but Lang plays him like a vicious T-Rex. He sniffs and stalks, suspicious the other two hoodlums are in, and points his ears forward to listen to the faintest of creaks in his home, which are usually the sounds of the two surviving youngsters (or termites).
Where in most movies the young protagonists do the opposite, like run and scream and act a fool, the tactics are flipped here. These two people who are now realizing crime is never the answer have no choice but to inch, tip-toe, whisper and hide.
The resulting scenes are a constant game of blind cat versus now-regretting-this-entire-decision mice. Blind Man hunts and stalks while the other two try not to make a peep. Entire scenes are done in complete silence, the most notable being a basement session wherein the two youngsters discover a horrible secret Blind Man has been hiding, and are now being forced to hide from him in pitch black darkness. Blind Man looms in the corner, waiting and listening for one of them to knock something over. Rocky almost makes matters worse when at one moment, feeling around for something to grab on her and the camera inch forward through the darkness, an object slowly emerging into frame that she nearly grabs onto—Blind Man himself. Director Fede Alvarez has proven here he has a firm grasp on how to slowly reveal a scenes climax, while still being able to retain the mystery and build up to it the moment with gripping tension.
The movie continues down this path of home-invasion-style antics, wherein Rocky and Alex cannot escape and Blind Man always seems to have the upper hand. Sure, audiences along for the ride may be able to guess where to movie is going and what will happen next, but Don’t Breathe, is filled with so much relentless, dark tension and suspense, accomplished with an immaculate attention to detail, that the ride is vastly more unsettling and nerve-wracking than the standard slash and gash teen horror flick.
Lang gives a career best performance playing the immensely physical and intimidating Blind Man, a role that requires the most subtle of subtleties while sensing the surroundings. He rarely says a word, but his movements do all the talking. Levy is entrancing as Rocky, the most desperate of the crew, who even during the horror of the events is bent on collecting the money they came to steal. Despite her determination to commit crime her innocence is abundant and she tries so desperately to stop herself from screaming at every horrific moment. You never forget that she is both a criminal and a victim, forming part of the movies moral center.
In the end, what gives the film that thoughtful core is that it’s a story about decent people who have gone to terrible lengths in hopes they can make their life better. There isn’t a moment where I didn’t feel at least a little sympathy for everyone involved (sans Mayor McDouche). At one point, Blind Man opens his mouth to explain the reasoning behind the aforementioned nasty secret, and what comes out is the hollow voice of a broken man. Not a sinister, evil villain who enjoys killing, but of a father who has been tortured by the death of his daughter. But then he begins to do something gross and shocking, and I screamed, “Oh, screw that guy! Put an axe in his face!”