REVIEW: ‘Don’t Breathe’ an engrossing, cleverly conceived thriller

Don’t Breathe is a bare-bones, straight-to-the-point, plot-driven thriller. There’s no excess exposition, no attempts at fleshing out characters beyond what’s necessary to make the terror work.

That’s not to say it’s not good. Taken for what it is, Don’t Breathe is an engrossing, cleverly conceived piece of suspense, high on concept and low on gore and overused tropes.

What’s it about?

Jane Levy (2013 Evil Dead remake) stars as Rocky, who’s feels stuck along with her kid sister living with their deadbeat lush of a mom. Rocky wants to get them both out of that life, and she’s turned to breaking into houses to do it.

She’s not committing the crimes alone. Helping her is Alex (Dylan Minnette), an otherwise smart kid with a crush on Rocky. Alex plans their break-ins and steals keys and alarm codes for houses from his security guard dad to get the jobs done.

Alex also tries to enforce a set of rules for their break-ins. He keeps the group to stealing smaller stuff that’s insurable in order to keep them clear of grand theft charges if they get caught.

Rounding out the trio is “Money” (Daniel Zovatto), Rocky’s boyfriend, who’s in it for his namesake and the thrill. Money fences what the group steals, and its his connection that provides the tip on potentially their biggest score ever.

The set-up

Their new target is an old Gulf War veteran, living alone in a house in an all-but-deserted, dilapidated Detroit neighborhood. Word is the old codger is sitting on a mountain of cash, a settlement from the tragic car accident that killed his daughter.

And, as the would-be thieves discover upon surveying their victim, the man is blind. No neighbors, a seemingly helpless victim, and enough cash to stop stealing for good. For Rocky, it’s too good an opportunity to pass up.

But once the group is inside and committed, they discover they’re way in over their heads. Their target is blind, yes, and he is sitting on all that money.

But he’s anything but helpless. Once he’s aware his home has been invaded, he draws on his old training and his knowledge of his home to defend himself. Soon, the trio finds themselves trapped with a man trained to kill and with his own dark secrets to hide.

Don't Breathe final one-sheet

Not exactly a horror film

Though billed as a “horror thriller”, Don’t Breathe is a lot more of one than the other. The film relies on the set-up and payoff of suspense, rather than visual frights and gore, to achieve its ends.

In this respect, it’s quite a departure from the last film from this writer/director/producer team. Writer-director Fede Alvarez, working with producers Sam Raimi and Rob Tapert, brought to the big screen a remake of Raimi and Tapert’s cult classic Evil Dead back in 2013, an effort distinguished by lots and lots of SFX gore and visual nightmares.

With this film, Alvarez works a lot more with creating an effective sense of claustrophobia in a setting made realistically almost impossible to escape. The house itself, with its long, eerily lit corridors, steep staircases, and basement full of twists and turns, becomes as bewildering and unpredictable an adversary as the man living in it. Though it has no ghosts, it winds up being as fright-inducing as any haunted house seen in recent film.

That said, hardcore classic horror buffs may come away from Don’t Breathe feeling cheated. Though the film’s primary antagonists turn out to be quite the terrors, the movie itself isn’t “scary.” Suspenseful, yes, but scary? Not unless you’re really afraid of the dark.

Stephen Lang a terrific terror

Speaking of that antagonist, veteran character actor Stephen Lang (Avatar, TV’s “Into the Badlands“) is as formidable and intimidating as ever in Don’t Breathe. Lang delivers a raw and muscular (literally) performance, easily the most memorable in the film. To a point, audiences may even find themselves rooting for him — after all, the thieves did invade his home, thinking he was a helpless mark.

The young actors who fill out the film’s tiny ensemble do their best to keep up with Lang, with mixed results. The minimal script really does them no favors — it provides them with motivation and gets them into the situation, and that’s it. The film clearly wants you to like them, or at least empathize with them, but it’s a tough sell. At least, until the twist comes along.

Worth seeing?

If you’re in the mood for a good thriller at the movies this weekend, you could do a lot worse than Don’t Breathe. However, there’s nothing in the film that would preclude it being just as enjoyable on the couch as a digital download or Netflix rental. See it now, or see it later — either way, it’s perfectly serviceable entertainment.

Don’t Breathe

Starring Jane Levy, Dylan Minnette, Daniel Zovatto, and Stephen Lang. Directed by Fede Alvarez.
Running Time: 88 minutes
Rated R for terror, violence, disturbing content, and language including sexual references.

Felix Albuerne
Felix Albuerne
One-time Blockbuster Video manager, textbook editor, trivia host, and community college English/Humanities teacher. Now a digital media producer, part-time film critic, amateur foodie, semi-retired beer snob, unabashed geek, and still very much a work in progress.