Don’t Breathe ✮✮✮
By Glenn Lovell
Take the serviceable storyline about a blind person who’s sadistically tormented by intruders – think “Wait Until Dark” with Audrey Hepburn or “See No Evil” with Mia Farrow – and turn it on its head, and you’ve got Fede Alvarez’s “Don’t Breathe,” my pick for the year’s best (read most unrelenting) chiller.
In this variation on the home-invasion plot, a blind Gulf War veteran (“Avatar’s” Stephen Lang), living in a blighted urban No Man’s Land, turns the tables on three young thieves who make the fatal mistake of thinking the isolated shut-in is an easy mark.
They’ll drug the guard dog (a tenacious Rottweiler), unlock the door and immobilize the alarm (with key and code lifted from a security specialist father) … and make off with the vet’s nest egg ($300,000 in cash from a settlement). Easy, peasy.
Of course nothing goes as planned, or is as it seems. Money (Daniel Zovatto), the mouthy leader, comes packin’ a gun; the already reluctant Alex (Dylan Minnette) bails at the first show of resistence; Rocky (Jane Levy), a single mother and Money’s girlf
riend, has her own agenda and refuses to leave without the loot.
And the slumbering ex-Marine? He proves a very fit opponent. Blinded in battle, his other senses now compensate. They’re as keen as those of a wild animal tracking its prey. The sinewy Lang was an inspired choice for the victim/villain. At times, as he’s thrashing at the air, he brings to mind the enraged cyclops blinded by Ulysses and his men.
Alvarez (the recent “Evil Dead”) has done his homework. His sophomore effort (shot on a soundstage in Hungary and, when not milking strategic silences, set to a nerve-jangling score by Roque Baños) manipulates the viewer as efficiently as a Hitchcock thriller; it’s full of startle effects (those shameless “Boo!” moments) guaranteed to make the most jaded genre fan leap out of his/her skin. Alvarez’s bombed-out Detroit neighborhood serves to isolate the young thieves, who communicate by IM; his maze-like house, explored by Steadicam, is every bit as creepy as Buffalo Bill’s basement dungeon. And as in “Silence of the Lambs,” the real fun begins when the lights go out.
You could fault Alvarez for his stacked faux endings. But this hoary gimmick, in a way, also works as postmodern parody of many lesser chillers, dating back to the original “Friday the 13th.”
“Don’t Breathe” is well-titled. You’ll find yourself following the young captives’ lead, clamping your hand over your mouth so as not to give Rocky or Alex — or yourself — yourself away. It’s lights-out scary.
DON’T BREATHE ✮✮✮ With Stephen Lang, Jane Levy, Dylan Minnette. Directed by Fede Alvarez; scripted by Rodo Sayagues. 88 min. Rated R (for profanity, extreme violence)