Just because he’s blind doesn’t mean he’s a saint.
Don’t Breathe is one of a handful of 2016 films that strip things down to a tight running time and a simple premise. Of these films, which include such diverse offerings as The Shallows and Southside With You, Don’t Breathe is easily the most successful. In this film, a trio of punks break into a blind man’s house in order to steal a large amount of money; once in, however, they discover that the blind man isn’t to be trifled with and they’ll be lucky to escape with their lives, much less the money. It’s a tight eighty minutes and it never stops for you to . . . well, you know. It’s a taut, mean little thriller that rarely pulls a punch. Some may have a problem with the fact that there’s no one to root for; everyone in this movie is pretty unlikable (of course, there are only four main characters), which is maybe a weakness of the film or maybe part of what makes it so compellingly nihilistic. I was a fan(maybe I should say THE fan) of Alvarez’s Evil Dead remake a couple of years back, so I was looking forward to seeing both him and Jane Levy return and neither disappoint. Alvarez’s direction is atmospheric, surprising and methodical in its screw-turning tension. Levy, who actually made it onto my top ten female performances of the year with her terrifyingly intense turn in Evil Dead, is brilliant here, though the role doesn’t require quite the dynamic range of her previous work with Alvarez. She’s able to access a deep, deep vein of terror that puts the “scared” acting most actors do to shame. Dylan Minnette isn’t a favorite actor of mine, but he’s better here than I’ve seen him before, again because he’s able to access real fear at times. But the weapon of this movie is the Blind Man; Stephen Lang’s performance here is almost certainly the finest work of his career. He plays the character like a blunt instrument; he goes after his prey like a bulldozer, but a crafty one, who knows the environment and his own abilities in a way that the kids don’t. He’s creepy, imposing, terrifying. There’s a bit of social commentary going on here under the surface. The film takes place in a devastated Detroit, one of a few horror movies of recent years set there, and the death of the city provides a compellingly dark backdrop. The grinding poverty of the dead-end drives these people to do the things that they do. And it’s more than motivation; it’s environment. Everything that happens in this movie happens because the Blind Man still lives in a nearly abandoned part of town. “Nothing for four blocks in any direction,” one of the characters muses; room enough for social niceties to fall away. This crumbling Detroit neighborhood isn’t that different from the wilderness where other horror movies take place. Ultimately, it’s a place with no police, no help, no hope, no God. It’s a taut movie, tense and terrifying, with a couple of twists I’ll admit I didn’t see coming, particularly one especially nasty one near the climax. It’s a full-on great movie, utterly transporting, an intense cinematic experience, a perfect execution & total elevation of genre. 4 stars.
tl;dr – thriller cranks the tension and horror to an extreme degree, bolstered by atmospheric direction and brilliant performances; a transporting cinematic experience; genre as good as it gets. 4 stars.