Director: Fede Alvarez
Stars: Jane Levy, Stephen Lang
3 (out of 5) Globes
Unlike the idiots who break into the wrong man’s house to steal his booty, “Don’t Breathe” is very delicate. It’s a dirty, white-knuckle thriller that knows the genre enough to play with it. It’s a home invasion picture, but inverted: Our not-quite-heroes are a gang of young thieves who break into a house only to find themselves trapped inside it. They have company in their mark: a blind Gulf War vet (Stephen Lang), who’s not quite Daredevil but efficient and willing enough to take them all out.
Toying with genre expectations is one thing, but “Don’t Breathe” does something else: It technically gives you no one to root for. To be more precise: It wants your stance on each character to be closer to “It’s complicated.” There’s Rocky (Jane Levy), a single mom desperate to take her young daughter away from a Detroit trailer park. That’s nice, but it means exploiting the not-so-good graces of both a cornrowed braggart who actually calls himself Money (Danie Zovatto) and a nice guy (Dylan Minnette), who can get them access to swank steads because his dad runs a local home security firm. And that also means literally robbing a man blind, one who’s come into a hefty settlement and wrestles with both the trauma of war and the deaths of his wife and daughter.
But that their target — who’s credited as The Blind Man — will go a bit above and beyond in protecting his stash makes things complicated, too. Once “Don’t Breathe” is good and settled in the house, director Fede Alvarez (of the mega-bloody “Evil Dead” remake) gets to the business of mucking with audience sympathy, jostling our sympathy between invaders and the invadee. Rocky and crew try to hide or at least keep quiet, all while slinking about a creaky house. Alvarez is a pro at creating tension with nothing more than sound effects and shots that constantly have us thinking of what’s outside the frame. He doesn’t use gimmicks — only once does he turn out the lights, making us blind, too — and sometimes it’s as simple as a shot of one character standing against a wall, trying not to move or breathe, as The Blind Man walks inches from him.
There’s a twist, in a movie that probably didn’t need one, and it seems to send up one of the most offensive and tiresome parts of b-movies. Inevitably the lone female character must be put in some kind of peril, and it’s usually sexual. Alvarez and his cowriter Rodo Sayagues wind up toying with this, as though to mock it, to show it’s smarter and more woke than that. But it’s still dicey. And as it nears the finish line the plotting collapses into a flurry of artless fighting, back-from-the-dead surprises, aborted escapes and numerous “Psych!” endings. But that’s not enough to upend a movie that knows how to unnerve in more ways than one.