Telling a home invasion story from the intruders' points-of-view is a novel approach on its own, but said premise becomes all the more subjectively loaded as the line provocatively muddies between the good guys and the bad. In the diabolically savvy hands of writer-director Fede Alvarez (2013's "Evil Dead
") and co-scribe Rodo Sayagues, only shades of gray prevail; black and white no longer exist. Ceaseless in its nail-biting tension and only becoming more breathlessly savage as it goes, "Don't Breathe" shreds one's nerves and leaves them for dead. It's easily one of the smartest, most riveting thrillers of the year, a nightmarishly ideal companion piece to Mike Flanagan's inspiring "Hush
Desperate to get ahold of enough money to escape their dead-end Detroit existences, single mom Rocky (Jane Levy) and boyfriend Money (Daniel Zovatto) have made a habit out of breaking into homes and stealing valuables for cash. With the help of Rocky's friend Alex (Dylan Minnette), whose father owns a home security company and possesses all his client's personal codes, they have so far gotten away scot-free with their burglaries. When Rocky and Money learn of a Gulf War vet (Stephen Lang) living in a nearby derelict neighborhood who could have upwards of $300,000 in his housethe result of a settlement payout after his daughter was struck and killed by a carthey see it as their answer to finally going straight and booking it to Los Angeles. Alex warns them of the immense criminal repercussions of grand larceny, but when they discover the man is blind they take it as a sign that it'll be a relatively straightforward in-and-out job. What follows is the opposite of simple, spiraling radically out of control as the homeowner seeks to do whatever necessary to protect himself and the sinister secrets he himself is harboring.
Who's right and who's wrong? Who has sinned and who is still capable of redemption? The four central characters in "Don't Breathe" are flawed individuals guilty of a litany of wayward actions. As control is won and lost and fights for survival take over, their roles as protagonists and antagonists constantly shift. With fatalistic complications and unspeakable revelations arising at a fever pitch, the film challenges one's allegiances and his or her own perspectives on morality and protection of property. Mounting a minimalistic narrative that uses claustrophobia as a suffocating, suspenseful asset, director Fede Alvarez holds viciously spellbinding sway over his cinematic terror trap. The disturbing places the story goes are nearly gasp-inducing, thankfully not given away in initial trailers. When so many pictures of this sort lose steam in the home stretch, this one only gets better as it mischievously tests the audience's threshold for handling stress.
Stephen Lang (2014's "A Good Marriage
") doesn't say much and doesn't need to as the grieving blind man who serves up a ruthless brand of justice on his trespassers. Initial sympathies lie with him (it's difficult not to when it is disclosed he sleeps at night with home movies of his late daughter playing on the television next to his bed), but not all is as it seems. Once seen, Lang's chilling performance is difficult to forget. As Rocky, whose dishonest means of making a better life for herself and her daughter could cost her everything, Jane Levy (2012's "Fun Size
") is a dramatically wired force, throwing herself physically and mentally into a heightened space of fear and desperation. And, as the more pragmatic Alex, Dylan Minnette (2015's "Goosebumps
") effectively stands as the voice of the viewer, realizing very quickly how in over their heads they are.
"Don't Breathe" is brutal yet transfixing, set against the unsparing backdrop of a financially distressed corner of America. With the minor exception of two moments where the editing and understandably dim lighting makes it difficult to grasp exactly what has happened, Alvarez and cinematographer Pedro Luque (2011's "The Silent House (La casa muda)
") deal in airtight cohesion. Exceptionally turning confined spaces into doomed, seemingly never-ending harbingersthere are at least two ingenious dolly zooms that complement this effectthey render a standard, broken-down single-family house into a harrowing labyrinth. And then, just because they can and know they must, they raise the stakes even more. As uncomfortable as "Don't Breathe" frequently is, it proves exceedingly easy to get lost in its taut power.