In other years I’d call Don’t Breathe the most efficient thriller in recent memory. But coming on the heels of The Shallows, and Green Room, and 10 Cloverfield Lane it’s just another in a string of suspenseful genre outings that whittle their compelling concepts down to the bare minimum. Like those other films, Don’t Breathe spends almost no time at all on its setup, putting the plot in motion quickly, trapping its instantly-characterized protagonists in the cold, merciless clutches of its tension. We meet three thieves breaking and entering to makes ends meet and save up to move out of state, their sad Detroit neighborhoods their reality while the idea of sunnier California coastline is their dream. They learn about a house in an abandoned part of town where a blind man sits on a pile of cash. It’s irresistible, but when they go to take it, the robbery goes very wrong very fast. It’s a one-thing-after-another movie locked in a one-location nightmare, the walls closing in on our leads as the story springs its twisted surprises.
Writer-director Fede Alvarez, whose 2013 semi-remake Evil Dead was a skilled crescendo of intensity and gore, conducts the proceedings as an exercise in craftsmanship. The leads are sneaking into the house of a man who can’t see, and a great deal of the tension in the early going comes from their silence. Every creaky floorboard or muffled gasp is worth a wince as the filmmakers hold the sound design in creepy near-silence, goosed with stings of music and effective jump scares. (The sensation should be familiar to anyone who remembers the board game Don’t Wake Daddy.) But then their target wakes up, adding the eerie sensation of his presence. They can stand in front of him unseen, dodging out of the way as he barrels down a hallway. Or he aims a gun while they try desperately not to give away their positions before—BANG! — a ringing cell phone on the other side of the room is met with a sudden shot. It’s good stuff, Alvarez confidently and capably moving a smooth camera across the well-defined interior spaces with a sneaky sense of heavy quiet. It’s as if even one wrong camera move would alert the man to the others’ presence.
A mirror image of the 1967 blind-Audrey-Hepburn-menaced-by-burglars movie Wait Until Dark, Don’t Breathe somehow keeps the rooting interest in the people doing the menacing. The cast – a sad young woman (Jane Levy, so brilliantly multifaceted in Alvarez’s Evil Dead), her gruff boyfriend (Daniel Zovatto, It Follows), and an almost-innocent inside boy (Dylan Minnette, Goosebumps) – are all veterans of recent scary movies able to play a believable sense of mounting frustration and fear. The burglars are doing a bad thing, but it’s not hard to sympathize with their plight. Their target (Stephen Lang, intense as usual) is a blind man, a veteran, and, we learn, a grieving father. It’s hard not to feel some twinge of guilt over the movie’s setup. But he’s also living in a scarily locked-down house, with padlocks and bolts, bars on windows, hidden firearms, and a wall of saws, bolt cutters, and power tools. What’s he up to? And why, once he wakes up and hears the intruders in his house, does he lock them in and prepare to take them out violently instead of calling the cops? What is he trying to hide?
So it turns into a claustrophobic little chess match, with filmmaking that’s gripping and accomplished, if entirely disposable and less interesting the more surprises it unveils. The movie is too fast and lean to really grapple with its character’s personalities, instead choosing a narrow focus on their behaviors. Best is Levy, a great horror heroine on a moral sliding scale that allows her to do bad for the right reasons, while Lang brings more than what’s on the page to a man who may be a target but becomes more of a monster the more we see him do. As is so often the case the movie is better and more compelling when it’s all mysteries, suspense, and how-do-they-get-out-of-this-one? and less interesting the more literal its stakes and clear its motivations. Alvarez saves some sick shocks for the end – not so much the prodigious blood and gore kind, instead relying on truly messed up mental gymnastics of its villain’s plot – but the real fun is how sharply choreographed the simple premise is in its ruthless execution.