Breaking into the house was hard enough. Getting out would be a nightmare.
The lean premise of the superbly scary Don't Breathe recalls the "Now yous can't leave" scene in A Bronx Tale, in which a bunch of motorbike wild-ones are unwittingly trapped in a mob hangout. They had walked into the wrong bar. Just as the three young burglars of Don't Breathe have broken into the wrong home. Because it's a fortress, manned by a creepy blind veteran who is practised in close-quarter combat, harbours deep grief and a whopper of a secret, and whose dog has watched Cujo one too many times.
There's also a turkey baster. That's all I'm going to say about that. Turkey baster.
Apparently this guy (played by a chilling Stephen Lang) is sitting hard on a small fortune, and although he can't see, his blind man's bluff game is extremely strong. As is the game of director Fede Alvarez (he of 2013's excellent Evil Dead reboot), who mostly eschews the easy jump scares and har-har-har dialogue that Hollywood has been passing off as horror filmmaking the past few years. What he achieves is significant: A home invasion story that is as artfully terrifying as Home Alone was entertainingly hilarious.
Alvarez right away gets to the personalities of the three break-and-enter hoodlums. They live in Detroit, which is becoming a go-to setting for dystopian urban Americana. We see the trio breaking easily into a tony home. There is a modus to their operandi: They don't steal cash, they don't use guns and they keep their looting to a certain minimum, so as to avoid felony-level sentencing if they were to be caught.
Jane Levy is Rocky, a smart, trailer-park blonde who goes after classy shoes and takes time during the burglary to try on expensive clothing. She's a dreamer, with a thing for ladybugs. Her mother's a real piece of work, and Rocky dreams of escaping to California with her little sister.
Her boyfriend (for lack of a better word) is an amped-up hooligan. He plans to go to California with Rocky, but, realistically, he's a lost cause. His handle is "Money." He whizzes on an Oriental rug for kicks. Yeah, he's that guy.
Then there is Dylan Minnette as nice-guy Alex, who is so straight-laced he rolls without a nickname. He's the mastermind for the heists, setting the rules and acting as something like the group's ethicist. He also has the keys to the candy stores, because his father operates a home security business.
If somebody had only told us – the scriptwriters, preferably – what Alex's theft motivations were, we'd have a better understanding of his character. As it is, he's a bit unfinished.
When it comes to The Blind Man – that's how he is credited – he's more of a symbol than a character. He is blind because he took grenade shrapnel to his face in a far-off land during a questionable war. He won a six-figure settlement when a rich girl caused his daughter to die. All the houses around his are abandoned, but his sturdy home is well kept, with an American flag hanging in front. Hard done by and living in a gutted-out industry town, The Blind Man is The Screwed Man – a representation of what's wrong with America.
He's also a shut-in – you'd think Clint Eastwood's Torino guy would swing around every once and while to help with groceries or something, come on! – and now he's getting to some unexpected guests.
Some viewers might have a problem with a shoe-horned shout out to religion. Earlier in the film, the thug Money rationalized the stealing from a sightless person. "Just because he's blind, doesn't mean he's a saint," he says. Indeed, it does turn out that The Blind Man has turned a blind eye to morality. "There's nothing a man cannot do," he intones in a raspy voice, "when he accepts that there is no god." Is this a rant against atheism? In an age when god-believers are committing unthinkable atrocities? Something to think about.
The Blind Man doesn't say anything else on the subject. In fact, nobody has much to say at all once the botched burglary gets heavy. Alvarez works with quiet frights, Blair Witch-y camera work and taut suspense.
Though a lot of the terror is right in front of us and the three wide-eyed intruders, a wicked gross-out scene near the end is something no one sees coming. On the same note, there might be a more frightening horror film coming out this year. But don't hold your breath on that one.