Three delinquents versus a blind army veteran; what could possibly go wrong? Well...judging by the film's title, quite a lot goes south for everyone involved, and oh baby is it relentless! Do not mistake this simple premise as a bland one though. When it comes to horror, the less convoluted things are, the better (not to mention scarier). This is what makes "Don't Breathe" the perfect note to end a mostly disappointing season of summer blockbusters, putting the average big-budget production to shame through lean storytelling and potent filmmaking. Fede Alvarez, who made quite a splash with his "Evil Dead" remake, pulls a David Fincher transitioning from "Alien 3" to "Seven," as he confidently holds back on reeling the audience in with a bunch of glitzy visuals this time around. Though it earns its hard-R rating with loads of wince-inducing brutality, "Don't Breathe" is refreshingly low on bloody violence to fill in the gaps between each methodically crafted scare. Character is also pretty thin here; Alvarez prefers to get straight to the nitty gritty without dwelling on unnecessary amounts of backstory and pausing for development just to get us to care about everyone on screen. Again, the plot need not be any thicker: Three delinquents are looking to break into a blind man's house, steal three-hundred grand, and get out. The problem? The owner is not as feeble as he may seem. Oh, and he has a terrifying Rottweiler that gives Cujo a run for his treats.
As the film opens, we see that these hoodlums have developed quite a knack for breaking, entering and stealing as they effortlessly loot precious items from wealthy households to sell on the streets of Detroit. Money (Daniel Zovatto) is in it for obvious reasons. His girlfriend Rocky (Jane Levy, who was put through the ringer in Alvarez's "Evil Dead"), is in it for less selfish reasons; she does it to support her little sister Diddy while their neglectful mother lounges about her trailer puffing cigarette smoke, and later sees the potential $300,000 as a chance to get herself and Diddy as far away from home as possible. Alex (Dylan Minnette), who supplies the keys owned by his security company employee father, does it in the hopes of getting closer to Rocky and moving out of the friend zone. All of them spend these first five minutes or so talking a great deal about their futures, and after so many robberies, they talk even more about how stealing from the blind will be easy peasy.
Talking, of course, is something that will not bode well for any of them once they enter the heavily safeguarded home of the Blind Man (Stephen Lang, who's all muscle, grit, and marble-grey eyes framed by scars. One look from him could turn you into stone). If they utter a single word above whispering volume, or, as the title suggests, breathe too heavily, their ends they will surely meet at the hands of the handicapped individual standing in their way. Money, being the cocky sonuvabitch he is, does not grasp this concept as well as his friends do. Not too far into the run-time does he suffer the fatal consequences of being a noisey, no-good thief in a death scene that sets the tone of the entire film, prompting Rocky and Alex to go into full stealth mode find a way out of the house as quickly as possible.
This is hardly the first horror film to twist the home invasion formula, though it is certainly not the worst. Just earlier this year, Netflix debuted a similar effort titled "Hush," which also follows a handicapped home-owner threatened by the intrusion of a lethal prowler. The resident in this one, however, is a deaf female writer. (Imagine putting these two together as a double feature!) The Hitchcockian influence on both films is strong, but there's a clear difference between them. "Hush" is Hitchcock with a glass of fine wine; "Don't Breathe" is Hitchcock after one too many lines of cocaine. It's as grimy as one might expect a thriller set in Detroit to be, but Alvarez and his cinematographer Pedro Luque keep the effort tight and comprehensive with sweeping camerawork, stark contrasts and some innovative tricks with the focus lens. It is the best-looking horror film of the year behind "The Witch."
Sound design and music are also paramount here. Unlike most directors in charge of crafting spooky stories, Alvarez knows exactly when not to use sound, and how much sound the audience should hear at specific points in the narrative. The Rottweiler sounds especially haunting (I wouldn't be surprised if the film uncharacteristically revealed him to be an actual hellhound). Roque Baños has the more taxing challenge of figuring out what the film sounds like musically. Having proven his composing abilities with his score for "Evil Dead," which was characterized by a Satanic choir and a fiendish string section, Baños captures the essence of "Don't Breathe" with instruments that sound like knives and other weapons dragging across metal surfaces.
The final act of the film takes a while to bring a definite end to all the horror. There are, of course, only so many escape routes, which may leave some to wonder why it doesn't wrap up sooner. Many will deduce that Alvarez is trying to keep viewers on their toes, and they won't be wrong, but these last few minutes don't feel gimmicky in the slightest. Instead, Alvarez fills the air with a surprising amount of doubt that Rocky and Alex will actually live to see another day, subtly toying with expectations before reaching a satisfying conclusion. He also manages to get away with a fine amount of shock value in a truly unsettling scene involving a turkey baster, which stands out, but doesn't feel entirely out of place. I don't expect Alvarez to become the next David Fincher, but if his career continues to unfold like that of Fincher's, we can all expect plenty more thrillers of this caliber to grace the silver screen in the years to come.