Review: ‘Don’t Breathe’ (this deal’s getting worse all the time)

A ninety-minute edge-of-your-seat thriller that flips perceptions with every passing moment.

After a successful (read: lucky) smash-and-grab, three Detroit teens plot their next and hopefully last score. Rocky (Jane Levy) plans to use her share of the expected $300K in cash to leave the city with her bad-boy boyfriend Money (Daniel Zovatta), but pulling off the crime hinges on the insider security information supplied by Alex (Dylan Minnette) who already has serious doubts. Unfortunately for the three would-be thieves, their reclusive target (Stephen Lang) has secrets all his own, a blind man who is anything but helpless. As bizarre revelations twist the simple score into a fight for survival, the teens discover too late what’s normal for the spider is chaos to the flies.

Directed by Fede Alvarez and co-written with Rodo Sayagues, this is the same team who created the surprisingly good Sam Raimi-produced remake of Evil Dead also starring Jane Levy. With a low budget and a high concept, success hinges upon the plot points and story characterizations without big special effects to fall back upon. Fortunately, this team has already proved they can do more with less, and with Avatar’s Stephen Lang added to the mix, speculation over the mystery of his character may be the best marketing of all. Do the delinquents deserve the comeuppance they have coming, or have they stumbled upon someone and something much worse than anything they could have imagined?

The film establishes two key survivors in the opening scene before snapping back to how the story ended up at that point. To that end, it should be no surprise that the lion’s share of back story goes to Jane Levy’s Rocky while the motivations of her compatriots are reduced to CliffsNotes bullet points. The story maximizes its location and utilizes that setting to serious effect, creating the perfect environment to hunt within or be preyed upon without interfering external forces — a box trap of one’s own making. With seemingly no one to root for, what viewers accept as tolerable from one character or another is both curated and wielded with anime-like precision, tempting viewers to pick a side before gleefully twisting the knife and the plot again.

From the opening frames to the in-setting callback credits, Don’t Breathe feels planned out in extreme detail. By the end, not every mystery is revealed, but neither does any of it seem implausible. A moment’s thinking supplies all the no-name non-bronze no-prizes one could want, keeping the runtime trim without lengthy explanations. The camera POV even foreshadows things here and there — a set of bells, tools in a laundry room, a common door equipped with a massive deadbolt lock — all things to make a viewer’s mind wonder and worry. Fast pacing, split-second decisions, and an eye for detail, the very few story glitches are forgivable… even when a character’s actions are not.

The ending manages to follow through on the presented themes while keeping future options open. Even as the film finally lets viewers take a breath themselves, it can’t help but poke the bear while still providing a denouement. Is this the last the surviving characters will see of one another, or will any sequel go in a completely different direction? Only the schedules of actors and box office receipts know for sure.

Don’t Breathe is rated R for terror, violence, disturbing content, language including sexual references, and hoping its a long time before (redacted) gets that taste out of their mouth.

Four skull recommendation out of four

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