There’s a moment early in “Don’t Breathe” where the appropriately-named Money says of robbing a blind man, “Just because he’s blind don’t mean he’s a saint, bro.” It’s a bad, cheesy line that sums up the film well — a great idea that can’t help but be undermined by its narrative execution.
The set-up is minimal. Three friends — Rocky (Jane Levy), Money (Daniel Zovatto) and Alex (Dylan Minnette) — make a living by breaking into homes that employ the security systems of Alex’s father. They hear a house in a deserted area of Detroit is cash rich, with one caveat — it’s still occupied by its blind owner (Stephen Lang). Things quickly go awry when they break in as they realize the owner is more capable than they originally thought.
The first twenty minutes or so, leading up to the break-in, does just enough to rationalize its character’s decisions and show that they’re somewhat sympathetic, but it feels rushed. “Don’t Breathe” is eager to get to the meat of its action, and it sacrifices story for the sake of thrills. Normally this would be an issue, but it works well here because of the simple plot.
On the opposite side of that, the last twenty minutes of the movie are a total mess. Any sort of twist in a film is risky, because they’re usually hokey and dumb. But “Don’t Breathe” takes it fives steps too far, with twist after twist after twist coming at a rapid-fire pace. It’s exhausting by the end of it all. Instead of trusting its straightforward narrative, the writers felt the need to warp it into an unnecessarily convoluted affair.
Despite all this, “Don’t Breathe” is one of the best and most effectively thrilling horror films this year. The emphasis on silence makes any noise that much more intense, and little things like cell phone vibrations and footsteps hold deadly consequences.
The almost complete lack of dialogue creates an intense visual experience. Likewise, the constant darkness throughout creates a terrifying atmosphere, especially later in the film when the blind man completely turns off the lights. “Don’t Breathe” is a beautiful movie. The lighting and the shot composition are all exquisite. Director Fede Alvarez, known for the similarly beautiful “Evil Dead” remake, is an artist to watch in the horror genre.
“Don’t Breathe” may not revolutionize the horror genre. It may not even tell a competent story, but it will leave audiences on the edge of their seats for nearly the entire film. It moves briskly through its short 88-minute runtime, but unlike this year’s “Lights Out,” it doesn’t feel like it’s skipping over important information. Even if it gets dumb at the end, “Don’t Breathe” is worth seeing solely for how scary it is.