Don’t Breathe sprints through its setup. Rocky (Jane Levy), her boyfriend Money (Daniel Zovatto), and her lovestruck friend Alex (Dylan Minnette) are thieves. They get into houses thanks to Alex’s dad, who installs home security systems. Their next target is the house of a blind military veteran (Stephen Lang) who supposedly has a hefty court settlement stashed on the premises. The three break in, gas the homeowner, and go about the business of looking for the money. Unfortunately for the trio, the veteran isn’t as easy a target as he appears.
What follows is a game of cat-and-mouse in a very limited setting, the geography of which is smartly set up early on in the heist with a bracing long take that explores the various nooks and crannies of the location. The hunter may be blind, but the prey is in his territory. Again, the film wastes no time in establishing his threat. The first burst of violence is sudden and striking. And from that point, the film only goes on expressing this man’s competence. He is not someone to be trifled with, and these kids are in real trouble.
The film doesn’t let up on the intensity. It keeps throwing the characters into tense, dangerous situations. The setting itself is the fuel of many of the thrills. The prey is trapped in the hunting grounds. The menacing presence of the blind man is never too far away. In several instances in this film, the characters are literally in the same space as their hunter, forced to cower and stay quiet in the face of the terrifying established threat. It’s simple, really effective stuff.
As the film goes on, it finds pretty inventive ways to play out the central dynamic. A real standout is a scene in the middle of the film that places an additional disadvantage on the sighted protagonists. It is one of the most exhilarating horror sequences in recent memory. And even after the heights of that sequence, the film never really lets up. It maintains the tension all the way through, the consistent and methodical deployment of its mechanics keeping everyone on their toes.
The only knock on the film’s elegance is its introduction of a couple of twists. There is more to the blind man than his latent existential threat. There are things revealed that travel into the realm of the uncomfortable, stuff that doesn’t quite match up with the rest of what the film accomplishes. It is a detail that doesn’t derail the film’s tension, but it still feels extraneous. The cast is pretty solid, though perhaps a little too conventionally attractive given who these characters are supposed to be. But Jane Levy makes for a terrific horror heroine, and Stephen Lang is everything a horror villain can be.
Don’t Breathe does lose something as it reveals more about the blind man. It feels strangely outlandish in a movie that gains so much from the groundedness of its horror. The film is best when it gets primal; when it makes the very act of breathing a risk. In these moments, we don’t really need to know much more. There are just these kids who could moments away from grievous harm or even death. And there is this hunter in the dark, grown callous and crazed from the awful things he’s gone through. And there is no help coming. There is only this house, and the dangers established within.