“Don’t Breathe” is satisfying, meat-and-potatoes horror, the kind that takes a simple premise, adds a couple of flourishes, makes the most of it for 85 minutes, then gets out before it can overstay its welcome. We would all do well to emulate “Don’t Breathe.”
It’s set in miserable Detroit, where three young burglars have a range of motives for their choice of profession. Rocky (Jane Levy) is doing it so she can take her little sister out of here and away from their useless mother. Good-hearted Alex (Dylan Minnette), whose father owns the home security company from which Alex is stealing alarm codes, is doing it to help Rocky, partly (but not entirely) because he wants her. The third is Rocky’s boyfriend, Money (Daniel Zovatto), a corn-rowed wannabe thug who just wants, uh, money.
I’m not saying the relative altruism of each person’s motives determines how that person fares in the story, or that this is in keeping with the standards of morality long established in the horror genre. But I’m not not saying it, either.
Anyway, the three set out to rob a blind Army veteran (Stephen Lang) who’s rumored to have bundles of cash hidden in his dilapidated but well-secured home, the result of some legal settlement a while back. When Alex expresses reluctance at robbing a blind man, Money says, “Just ’cause he’s blind don’t mean he’s a saint, bro.” Good point, Money.
Things go awry (as they generally do) when the blind combat veteran proves to be a more formidable opponent than our intruders anticipated, resulting in a chilling “Wait Until Dark” scenario of tiptoeing around and trying to remain silent. But unlike the Audrey Hepburn classic, our rooting interest remains with the thieves — there’s another layer to the story that I won’t mention — as they learn that a house that’s hard to break into can be just as hard to get out of.
The director is Fede Alvarez, of the 2013 “Evil Dead” remake, again co-writing with Rodo Sayagues. Alvarez delivers several hold-your-breath moments in this tight, expertly paced thriller, exploiting such classic suspense tropes as “Will the blind person hear this small noise?” and “Is the glass going to break?” and “Wait, what about the dog?” (The overall effectiveness makes it easy to overlook narrative problems like the character who ought to be dead several times yet persists in living.)
Jane Levy (who was also in “Evil Dead”) is a strong heroine, and despite a few feints in that direction, the film isn’t the sort to pile on the abuse of its women. I don’t have much to say about Dylan Minnette, who came from the same factory that made Logan Lerman (and, before that, Shia LaBeouf), or Daniel Zovatto, though both serve their purposes. Most impressive is how Alvarez keeps things interesting despite the limited geography and small cast of characters. Just when you think you know where it’s going, there’s another icky turn to make you smile and wince.
B+ (1 hr., 28 min.; )