Three young hooligans – Rocky (Jane Levy), Alex (Dylan Minnette) and Money (Daniel Zovatto) – make a de-facto career out of breaking into other people’s homes and stealing their things. They never bring a gun to the scene of the crime, and they never take cash. Money hears of a blind veteran living on his own in a deserted street who has more than $300,000 on the premises, and despite their rules against guns and cash they take one to go and steal the other.
So far so good, and in its initial set-up Fede Álvarez’s Don’t Breathe has all the makings of an effective and tense home invasion thriller. It’s easy to hate Money: he is the one who devises the plan to steal from a blind person, and he is the one who carries a gun into the house in case things get violent. Rocky is a more ambivalent character, as the film showcases her intolerable life and gives her a solid reason to commit crimes to escape. Pitting them against a blind veteran (the always welcome Stephen Lang) has all the indications of a morally grey, delightfully murky story. People make rash decisions. Someone panics. Someone else gets shot.
Where the film missteps terribly is in making Lang’s unnamed blind man a horrifying monster. He is a psychopathic villain and a stock thriller boogeyman, with an awful stomach-churning secret hidden in his basement. It stacks the deck against him: suddenly it is okay to root for the teenage criminals, despite their attempt to lift more than a quarter of a million from a disabled army veteran, because he is suddenly a worse person than they are. It’s a mean cheat, and it adds the Blind Man (it’s all he’s ever credited as) to a long list of villainous characters whose disability is an analogue for their own monstrous nature. Just watch your average James Bond film.
This is a deep shame, because Álvarez absolutely has the narrative skills and visual eye to make Don’t Breathe an extraordinarily tense thriller. He knows how to exploit a small cast and a very confined environment to great effect, so that the film never feels dull or repetitive. It is weakened a little by a distasteful climax and an epilogue that crassly foreshadows a sequel, but in the main it is a decent B-movie. It is just a shame that the treatment of disability is so uncomfortable – and not in a good, provocative way – and that is before one considers the ethics of casting a sighted actor as a blind character.
Jane Levy does a good job playing what is ultimately a very traditional female protagonist for the horror and thriller genres. Álvarez and Rodo Sayagues’ screenplay allows her to play a fairly pro-active character, and that counts for a lot. Levy is always convincing in moments of crisis, whether fear, dread, grief or rage. Minnette and Zovatto are not quite as engaging, but their characters are both quite thinly drawn. As the Blind Man, Stephen Lang works to perfection. In his early moments he is very sympathetic, before the film demolishes that element in favour of something much more ordinary.
Don’t Breathe is a flawed but generally effective thriller, but I honestly believe there was a much more interesting thriller buried in the material. It’s an entertaining enough distraction, but strangely a disappointment too.