The premise of Fede Alvarez’s Don’t Breathe suggests it’s been adapted from an effectively lurid bar joke: “Did you hear the one about the three teenage schmucks from Detroit who tried to steal $300,000 from a Gulf War veteran?” But the film, in execution, doesn’t evince the perverse integrity of such a joke, which can crudely arrive at essential truths about our common nature by pridefully throwing political correctness out the window. On the surface, Don’t Breathe’s characters are all avatars for class marginalization, but this commonality is ultimately beside the point. That the story plays out almost entirely on a desolate street in a once booming metropolis is a transparent means to prevent the well-oiled screenplay’s reams of noise, from gunshots to screaming, from being reported to 911 by a good Samaritan. As for the revelation that the veteran (Stephen Lang) whose house the teenagers break into was blinded during combat, it’s intended only to manipulate the audience’s feelings about who should live or die.
Save for a digressive bit that cartoonishly establishes the horror of Rocky’s (Jane Levy) dead-end life, by way of her mother implying through a simulation of oral sex that Rocky stays afloat by prostituting herself, the film barely colors in its characters’ lives, uninterested in our disdain or sympathy. Rocky’s boyfriend, Money (Daniel Zovatto), is a vague embodiment of the alpha male who proceeds impulsively even through situations that don’t directly stoke his ego and pad his pockets. Their accomplice, Alex (Dylan Minnette), who grants them access to the area’s homes through his father’s job at a home-security company, is half-understood as the rosy-cheeked freshman who’s probably one big mistake away from completely disengaging from his essential goodness. Money at one point spitefully acknowledges that Alex has feelings for Rocky, but if that’s even true, you’d only know it from the embarrassed expression on Alex’s face. No one is easily contemptible or pitiable, and by keeping these characters at arm’s length, the film is effective for how it initially uses our ambivalence to blur the lines between hero and foe.
Don’t Breathe then proceeds as a series of carefully choreographed set pieces, from the moment Rocky, Money, and Alex stand outside the blind man’s home, trying to figure out how to get inside it and disable its security system without waking the owner, to the moment where more than one of them wonders, if only through their sweat and tears, if they’ll ever figure out a way of getting out of the house. When the camera first enters and, though a slick long shot, almost completely surveys the home, it does so with the cocksureness of a magician walking onto the stage from which he or she will pull off a grand act of deception. But the camera not only visualizes the steps in Money’s plan that will allow him and his friends to steal the veteran’s money without being caught, it also picks up telling visual details within the house that could potentially thwart the plan. And the ensuing game of mousetrap through the house is grueling in its suspense.
Alvarez’s particular triumph is to suggest, through a seamless patchwork of near-escapes, an almost blackly comic spin on the classic Looney Tunes gag of characters running in and out of doors in a whirl of chaotic energy. In a more explicit riff of the Audrey Hepburn-starring Wait Until Dark, the story’s would-be thieves are pitted against a man who turns out to be blind, though far from the feeble victim they imagined, and so their only hope of escape becomes their impossible silence. The sounds of things and objects, from creaky floorboards to cellphones, are both tip-offs and methods of distraction. In one scene, the gun-toting veteran charges down the hall in a fury and directly past Alex, and as the young man presses his back against the wall, the expression on his face could be our own for how it recognizes the simultaneous horror and absurdity of his predicament.
Don’t Breathe’s sustainment of its corkscrew tension is so elegant and methodical as to feel dance-like, though the script’s calculated intrusions of backstory are ultimately compromising. It’s not enough for Alvarez and co-screenwriter Rodo Sayagues to mark Rocky as the film’s most identifiable hero by having her state that she wants to get herself and her little sister out of Dodge. That the blind man must also be a psychopath, and for reasons too enormous and ludicrous to spoil, so thoroughly and conspicuously draws a line between forgivable and unconscionable conduct that Rocky’s “final girl” status is instantly preordained. But those are moves one expects from a genre exercise such as this, and they’re made to feel almost new again through Alvarez’s slickly deployed aesthetics. Harder to excuse is how the utilization of Detroit as a setting is less gesture of mourning than a matter of convenience, a means of allowing a very loud home invasion to play out without raising any immediate alarms. In the end, then, the cost of wallowing in Alvarez’s gorgeous technical bravura is to condescend to a city’s ruin.