3 out of 5 stars
Rated R. Directed by Fede Alvarez.
Starring Stephen Lang. Jane Levy, Daniel Zovatto, and Dylan Minnette
The less you know about Fede Alvarez’s Don’t Breathe, the better. That’s not to say there’s nothing to talk about, but it’s a rewardingly straightforward thriller. There are no table-upending twists and no high-concept premises; it’s blessedly closer to 2013’s You’re Next than, say, 2012’s Cabin in the Woods.
Rocky (Jane Levy, Evil Dead), Alex (Dylan Minnette, Goosebumps) and Money (Daniel Zovatto, It Follows) live in Detroit, and in their free time, which is pretty much all of it, they steal things. Alex’s dad owns a security company, so they take the spare keys for houses he’s serviced, walk in, and steal just enough to stay out of jail if they’re caught.
The film spends about as much time on setup as I just have: it can’t be more than 10 or 15 minutes. Rocky wants to move to California; Alex wants to be with Rocky; Money’s an asshole. Their latest job, which of course is lucrative enough to be their last if they pull it off, takes them to a house in a deserted neighborhood. Its occupant is blind and sitting on $300,000.
They break in, and the next 70 minutes of the movie meticulously track how shit goes wrong. There is one plot wrinkle involving a basement, vengeance, and an impromptu cumshot, but aside from that the film simply pits three kids against a blind Gulf War vet and lets the inevitable happen.
Don’t Breathe is a home invasion movie bent into the shape of a slasher. We sympathize with the nominal criminals, and the victim becomes an inexorable threat. Alvarez’s facility with gore effects is put to subtler use here than in his Evil Dead remake, tipping the scale away from "goofy" towards "brutal." The sound design is intricate and careful; glass crunching underfoot, floorboards creaking, the deafening boom of gunshots.
Alvarez and DP Pedro Luque lay out the geography of the house early on in a long take; the camera rests on a hammer, a crawlspace, a locked door, cuing us to important objects and where they are. Don’t Breathe’s greatest strength is its clarity. It never strains for anything out of its reach: it simply executes on its premise as fully as it can. More genre movies could use that humility.