Near the beginning of Don’t Breathe — the taut, appropriately breath-stealing new movie that galvanizes the tired home invasion subgenre of horror the way films like The Witch and It Follows have done for the coven and slasher subgenres — the camera lingers on some abandoned houses in a dead neighborhood of Detroit. It’s here that three friends, teens teetering on the brink of a bleak adulthood, have come for what they hope will be the last heist they ever have to pull.
As they move in to case the joint — the only freshly painted house on the street — the camera pans out for a fleeting glimpse of the Detroit skyline, miles away. It’s a barren, apocalyptic tableau, transforming what should have been a quiet suburban street into an outpost at the end of the world.
With this sequence and without a word of dialogue, director Fede Alvarez (2013’s Evil Dead remake) shows you what’s at stake for each of Don’t Breathe’s characters if they fail to make it to the end of the movie’s hellish 90-minute ride.
Detroit is no country for old men (or millennials)
Much like the thieving protagonists of the concurrently playing Hell or High Water, which hits the Southern Gothic with a similar caffeine shot to the jugular, Don’t Breathe’s trio of thieves are the relics of a modern US wasteland ravaged by the effects of the economic recession, ruined by the greed of the richest 1 percent and the exhaustion of a region depleted beyond renewal.
The three friends — reticent ringleader Alex (Dylan Minnette), renegade Money (Daniel Zovatto), and ever-watchful Rocky (Jane Levy) — have been successfully running a series of small-time break-ins using house codes taken from Alex’s father’s security company. They’re usually clean, in-and-out jobs: robbing the upper middle class of small caches of jewelry and money, nothing that could get them in serious trouble if they were caught.
But safe and clean won’t get them out of Michigan, much less allow them to start a new life out West with Rocky’s young daughter. So when Money gets a line on a grieving father who never deposited most of the massive settlement payout from his daughter’s fatal car accident, they decide to risk it all.
Predictably, things start going wrong almost immediately. The trio discovers the man they’re about to rob is blind, with a seriously vicious guard dog as his primary form of protection. The dog is easily vanquished, but what awaits them inside the house is far more insidious.
Don’t Breathe effortlessly subverts its origins while culling new terror from its physical landscape
The genius of Don’t Breathe is the effortless way it combines a typical heist flick with the tropes of the well-trodden home invasion formula. This is harder than you might think: The strength of any good heist story rests on viewers’ ability to empathize with and root for its lovably disreputable criminals, while the most terrifying home invasion films rely on the utter anonymity and anarchistic lawlessness of the invaders.
But in Don’t Breathe, we know and love the invaders, and the anarchy and lawlessness is already inside the house when they enter. Their journey to this realization happens in a series of tightly controlled and delightfully ruthless plot twists that occur with increasing speed and depravity as the film ratchets up the tension.
Eventually, the twists cease to be twists and instead become the basic fabric of Don’t Breathe’s apocalyptic landscape, one in which family bonds are only as good as their insurance payout and grief itself becomes distorted beyond recognition.
And even though Don’t Breathe eschews the repetitive, anvilicious visual odes to our societal and economic collapse that mar Hell or High Water, the film never once lets you forget that it’s set in Detroit. Its characters, Rocky in particular, are so thirsty for new lives that it’s like the city turned off their water.
And the Motor City itself seems to have warped our blind, badass home defender, a former war hero mesmerizingly played by Stephen Lang, into a man who has to dehumanize and commodify the people who’ve invaded his life for the sake of his own survival. His name is never mentioned; it’s almost beside the point, since his real name is "blind justice." His terrified houseguests have no idea what they’re up against.
And that’s before he turns off the lights.
The home invasion genre usually succeeds in part because of the dry social commentary afforded by its slick, intricate settings. In films like 2002’s Panic Room, 2008’s The Strangers, and this year’s Hush (another riff on the Wait Until Dark trope in which the invaded heroine is blind or deaf), the houses are posh mazes of sleek modern design. The affluence of the invaded victims is simultaneously their biggest asset to outwitting the newcomers and their biggest weakness in attracting them to begin with.
In the genre’s masterwork, Funny Games, the house’s essential homogeneity is its family’s undoing; they’re targeted in part because they and their house are so typical of the upper middle class — precisely like the kind of houses the trio of Don’t Breathe normally chooses to rob.
But the house at the center of Don’t Breathe is nothing like its cinematic peers. It is alive and full of teeth and chaos, as unforgiving and full of tricks as the man who lives in it. The moment the camera enters the house, it sways and sags in a sequence of ceaseless tracking shots that leave the viewer feeling at sea, as though the house itself is manipulating our sense of orientation.
In every sense that matters, the house is "haunted." Its clutter-filled corners and claustrophobic rooms are a messy, jagged-edged manifestation of its owner’s destitution and moral collapse, and every inch of it feels like a war zone with potential mines at every step. Thanks to the seamless way Roque Baños’s score overlaps with Jonathan Miller’s fantastic sound editing, the constant battle between noise and silence inside the house is as intense as the action itself. Every breath, footfall, click, crack, and crunch is a minor battle won or lost in the trio’s fight to escape the blind man’s demented court.
Don’t Breathe is less scary than it is suspenseful, but its most crucial plot twist delivers such a payoff that you’ll want to go in unspoiled — and preferably see the film alongside a large and vocal audience. It’s far more clever than any home invasion flick in recent memory save Adam Wingard’s wry 2013 sendup of the genre, You’re Next. It’s both more home invasion-y and more devoted to sheer unhinged anarchy than the Purge films, while managing to achieve the kind of deft social commentary that franchise only dreams of.
Like The Purge, most home invasion films inevitably stray into the celebration of their own mayhem. That would be difficult for a film like Don’t Breathe to pull off, even if we weren’t siding with protagonists who set out to cold-bloodedly rob a blind man in one of the poorest cities in the US.
It might be a stretch to argue that Don’t Breathe is a metaphor for the disastrous consequences of the invasion of Iraq, but as a movie it clearly captures the country’s subsequent social decay. There’s nothing celebratory about Don’t Breathe’s deranged fight for survival: The blind man’s house is America, and we’re all just waiting to exhale.