Photo courtesy of Sony Pictures
Home invasion films usually follow a very linear story progression: a group of intruders with ill intentions break into a home, and the victimized family hides in terror, eventually rallying to fend off the threat. While “Don’t Breathe” approaches the subgenre from a fresh angle and creates palpable tension in a claustrophobic setting, its heavy-handed foreshadowing and lack of character development prevent it from becoming a memorable horror installment.
Many of the movie’s twists — and there are plenty of them — are ruined by watching the previews, so it is advised not to do so. As someone who wasn’t fortunate enough to escape them due to the film’s aggressive advertisements consisting of autoplaying videos on social media and numerous commercials, it felt like most of the film’s great moments had already been spoiled. Despite this blunder, the rest of the almost hour-and-a-half movie will keep the audience wiping sweat from their palms, a trait that’s no doubt a result of Fede Alvarez’s relentless directing style.
Spending the night stuck in a blind man’s home may not be a typical terrifying predicament, but Stephen Lang sells his role as the Blind Man by creating a superbly imposing figure with only minimal dialogue. Lang’s character, a Gulf War veteran, is revealed to be in possession of a settlement after his only daughter was killed by a wealthy motorist. Unfortunately, the brief backstory allocated to the Blind Man seems to have used up all the male character development and renders the other male protagonists shallow and uninteresting. The cliche bad boy, aptly named Money (Daniel Zovatto), gets his kicks robbing houses in Chicago, but he’s just a catalyst for the idea to rob the Blind Man, meaning his character’s purpose is quickly exhausted. The cautious tagalong Alex (Dylan Minnette) uses his father’s career in security systems to choose targets for the group to rob, and his affection for Money’s girlfriend, Rocky (Jane Levy), creates a dull love triangle where it’s obvious who viewers are supposed to root for. Rocky’s desire to relocate her younger sister from an unsafe household is admirable, but given the checkered past and questionable morals of each character, there’s no real desire to pull for anyone in particular to “win.”
Superficial protagonists aside — character’s aren’t really Alvarez’s strong point, as seen in his 2013 “Evil Dead” remake — “Don’t Breathe” takes a cramped setting and somehow makes it feel even more confined, an aspect facilitated by Lang’s blindness. As the Blind Man guides himself with one hand on the wall and another holding his gun, his proximity to the trio in narrow hallways makes it feel like there’s not enough space in the world that the audience can put between themselves and the Blind Man. Directed only by sounds, the Blind Man’s handicap is the movie’s benefit by creating noiseless environments where the slightest footstep carries consequences.
As the movie progresses, it becomes less satisfying to watch unfold. Blatant foreshadowing by panning to and zooming in on household objects hint their future importance to the point that it becomes almost a linear puzzle with a lot of the pieces already in place. In a way, this creates a timeline that proves to be both excitedly surprising and totally expected at times. “Dont’t Breathe” also falls victim to the “not quite dead” trope where people return from the brink of death constantly to the point where it’s exhausting to keep wondering if someone has truly met their demise. The false sense of security quickly becomes frustrating to watch, and the lack of closure at the movie’s end does little to remedy the problem.
Despite these character and directing slip-ups, the alluring conflict of “Don’t Breathe” and the resulting tension packed into a refreshingly short time creates an entertaining, if forgettable, experience.