Fede Alvarez’s first feature since his effectively grisly 2013 “Evil Dead” remake is a home-invasion thriller in which burglars discover that breaking into a blind recluse’s Detroit house is a lot easier than getting back out alive. Given the somewhat uninspiring moniker “Don’t Breathe” just before its SXSW premiere, the hitherto-untitled pic is a muscular exercise in brutal, relentless peril that should please genre fans. Prospects look upbeat for a summer’s-end theatrical launch in various territories.
After a vivid first shot from very late in the action that’s perhaps a bit too much of a spoiler, the script (by Alvarez and Rodo Sayagues) rewinds to show our protagonists doing what they do to get ahead in Motor City: breaking into the houses of the wealthy and making off with whatever strikes their fancy, or that they can sell. They’re able to bypass the targets’ security system because Alex (Dylan Minnette) has inside intel; the owners are customers of his oblivious father’s security company. He’s a somewhat reluctant participant pulled in by unrequited feelings toward Rocky (Jane Levy), who’s trying to raise enough funds to get herself and her preschool daughter out of a bleak domestic situation. Her somewhat loutish b.f., Money (Daniel Zovatto), is in it just for kicks.
Money hears of a blinded military veteran living alone who may have a pile of green on hand, since he won a major settlement after his only child’s death in a reckless driving incident. Alex is not thrilled — stealing actual cash would put them in a harsher criminal-offense category if caught — but Rocky is eager to seize a chance at accruing getaway funds fast. Ergo, the young trio find themselves outside the only house occupied for blocks around in an abandoned neighborhood. After sedating the owner’s Rottweiler, they manage to get in.
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But things almost immediately go south. The resident (Stephen Lang), billed only as “The Blind Man,” may be sightless but is far from helpless, and it eventually emerges that he’s hiding something beyond cold currency. Their numbers fast winnowed, the panicked thieves soon retreat to a locked basement where they make an alarming discovery that explains their intended victim’s take-no-prisoners attitude toward intruders.
The script does a solid job with the difficult task of maintaining constant tension in a physically and conceptually contained situation, levying unpleasant new challenges on the characters one after another without ever growing too hectic or overblown. (Some plausibility issues might arise in retrospect, but “Don’t Breathe” isn’t the kind of movie that encourages analysis after the final credits roll.)
With silence required for the protagonists surviving a keen-eared pursuer, there’s not much dialogue in the house (until a brief later patch when there’s perhaps a bit too much), allowing Alvarez and his team to fully limn a cat-and-mouse game in visceral terms. Pedro Luque’s prowling camera, production designer Naaman Marshall’s decrepit interiors, Roque Banos’ atmospheric score and the contributions of three credited editors help create a sort of labyrinthine survival game that never descends to the formulaic, gimmicky sadism of “Saw”-type movies. “Don’t Breathe” is more grounded in (particularly economic) reality than such exercises — even if most of it was filmed in Hungary, with only the exterior shots of distinctive Detroit ruins actually shot there.
The actors are fine in their relatively simple if grueling roles, with Lang impressively intimidating, not to mention still “Avatar”-brawny, at age 64.