PLOT: A trio of young Detroit thugs attempt to pilfer $300,00 in cash from a blind, shut-in war vet. But when they break into his house, a simple plan backfires with unintended lethality.
REVIEW: After acquitting himself as more than a promising short-form filmmaker with the thankless task of aptly re-envisioning Sam Raimi’s cult-classic EVIL DEAD, Uruguayan writer/director Fede Alvarez throws a big fat middle finger to the notion of a sophomore slump with his new film DON’T BREATHE – a lean, mean, tautly wound and unforeseeably spun home invasion thriller gone mortifyingly awry. Co-written with Alvarez by Rodo Sayagues, starring Jane Levy, Dylan Minnette, Daniel Zovatto and Stephen Lang – DON’T BREATHE makes you think you’re watching a movie you’ve seen many a time before, only to unfold a series of unpredictable revelations that pits a sadistic battle of a lesser of two evils against each other until it erupts into a volcano of violent immorality.
It subverts the subgenre, and just when you think the film is stepping in one direction, it niftily jukes your expectations and darts in another. Characters unmask, sympathies shift, tensions coil, and in the end, you really can’t reconcile who to trust, who to root for and who you may want to die. Trust, even with its dearth of outright levity, this is old-school, tautly-tethered white-knuckle fun!
Rocky (Levy), her skeevy boyfriend Money (Zovatto), and her sweet-tempered best friend Alex (Minnette) are a trio of small time Detroit crooks in desperate need of fast cash. After seeing a news story on TV about a reclusive blind war vet (Lang) who received a large cash settlement in the wake of his daughter’s fatal auto accident, the three young punks case the guy’s place with plans to rob the man, ahem, blind. Seems like an easy enough plot, right? Not remotely.
Though he’s decrepitly bed-ridden at first, The Blind Man proves far craftier than he appears. First off, he has a mangy mutt by his side to protect him. Secondly, when a person loses one sense, the others tend to heighten as a means of compensation. This applies here, as it’s clear The Blind Man harbors extrasensory aplomb in other areas: hearing, smelling, touching, etc. This allows the man to wake up and escape a chloroform bomb that Money throws at him upon breaking in at 2:00 AM. The Blind Man – also a tactically trained combat expert with engorged biceps – exits his bedroom and physically confronts Money in the living room, without knowing how many other assailants may be in the house. Alex and Rocky try their damndest to remain silent and skulk around the house undetected. But the man has two advantages. He knows the lay of the place like no other, and he now has a gun in tow. He’s out for blood!
The suspenseful intensity of Alex and Rocky’s cash-grab and escape attempt is expertly executed, and could really prop up the entire film quite sturdily on its own. And for awhile, it does. The action is indefatigably vicious, grabbing hold of you with its relentlessly visceral clinch and never letting go until the wildly unpredictable conclusion. But halfway through, layers are peeled and conflicting information is revealed that utterly blurs the line of morality among all involved. I can’t spoil too much here, but suffice it to say, The Blind Man isn’t the innocent victim he initially seems. He in fact operates a sordid criminal endeavor just a floor below in his basement.
The movie then slides into a gut-knotting cat-and-mouse volley of survivalism between a pair of home-invading robbers and a potential murderer…in essence forcing us to decide what is, and side with, a lesser of two evils. There’s one particular standout scene in which The Blind Man forces a blackout, which in effect gives him the upper-hand, as he’s not only used to pitch blackness, but he also has a gun brandished. He’s able to feel around and move about the place adroitly while the others stumble around in the darkness. The scene is shot in a muted black and white film stock, and really lends an immersive stylistic representation of what such a situation might be like. It’s a well conceived scene and actuated even more effectively than it must read on paper.
In fact, so is the entire film. At a brisk 88 minutes, there’s nary a wasted moment. The script is economically efficient, with seemingly innocuous plot-points early on that come home to roost in a big bad way in the end. And again, done so in a way that is not only ruthless, but almost impossible to see coming. The twists and turns and dark corners of depravity this movie ends up bending around are not only bound to keep you mystifyingly pinned, they’re so damn entertaining that you won’t be able to look away from the screen.
And while the three youngsters all deliver credible turns, the obvious standout star here is Mr. Stephen Lang, who more or less gives a silent performance as a blind but quasi-superhuman psychotic shoved to his breaking point. On one hand you feel deeply for his loss, his compromised health and that he is burgled victimhood. On the other, when his sick and sadistic back-story comes to light, you’re sympathies sort of slide toward the plight of the young assailants: their dire financial need, their escalating peril, etc. In addition to the deftly executed suspense, it’s this kind of psychological vacillation that really stands out as making the movie far more enthralling than one might otherwise assume. The movie doesn’t just spike your adrenaline, it toys with your heart plays with your mind in a way you just don’t often see in a low-budget, single-set, four-character home invasion joint. Or, for that matter, any movie.
All this computes to an unwavering recommendation to see the film when it drops into theaters on August 26th. DON’T BREATHE is a lissomely scripted throwback thriller that palms your attention, squeezes tight and never lets up until the refreshingly unexpected finale. Even without a ton of laughs, the tension-fueled suspense is so competently crafted that the austerity of tone, however monotonous, is never an issue.
On the contrary, it’s intense death-grip is the movie’s overwhelming strong suit. So too is the turn from veteran actor Stephen Lang, who with his faraway look and inveterate fugue state, appears to be a zombified strongman…the kind of victimized villain we rarely ever see in a movie. So, for those who saw the untapped promise of director Fede Alvarez after his solid rehash of EVIL DEAD, you’ll be delighted to see the sort of dexterity he shows here…the sleight of hand tricks up his sleeve that he reveals with perfect timing to keep you at once off-kilter an on edge. DON’T BREATHE is a breath of a fresh air indeed!