Flipping the horror trope of a home invasion locking terrified characters in with their would-be aggressors, Don’t Breathe casts the thieves as those getting locked in and hunted down. Rocky (Jane Levy), Alex (Dylan Minnette), and Money (It Follows’ Daniel Zovatto) break into a blind man’s house (Stephen Lang). Situated on an entirely empty street in a derelict Detroit suburb, the three are looking for an insurance payment the old man received when his daughter was killed in a car accident. Unfortunately, though their mark is blind, he’s also an ex-marine with nothing much to lose, so when the robbery goes awry he’s not all that concerned about the terror he’s capable of causing.
As a purely visceral thriller/horror, Don’t Breathe is very effective. Fede Alvarez, whose previous credits include the recent remake of Evil Dead, lays out the geography of the house in which most of the film is set with slick efficiency and makes his violence grimly bone-crunching. Compare him to most of his horror contemporaries, who seem more content with cheap jump scares and relentlessly shaking the camera, and it’s clear this is a director who understands how to tell a story. Nothing in Don’t Breathe is unclear, and this surfeit of knowledge makes proceedings all the more tense.
We don’t really find out much about each of the three thieves home lives—only one scene depicts anything as such, where we learn Rocky has a hopelessly addicted shell of a mother and a preadolescent sister—and we actually find out more about their victim. Although the blind man is by all means a brutal creature hiding some nasty secrets, the film offers him a glimmer of empathy. This is after all, an aging man living in the middle of a derelict block on his own, with no family or support network to call upon. Beneath the film’s bone-knuckle thrills there lies a subtext about the black hole of post-recession capitalism, which chews people up and spits them out, leaving them to fend for themselves. Is it any surprise that such processes lead to barbarism?
Don’t Breathe is certainly one of the tougher and more antagonising horrors of recent years (although one could arguably call it a particularly brutal thriller more than a horror). Not having seen Alvarez’s remake of Evil Dead, I can only say that it’s good to see he has more in him than just a desire to remake previous titles; this is a director with an understanding of his genre and an ability to flip old tropes into new stories. Don’t Breathe is no classic, but it’s a finely-crafted thrill ride all the same.