Hello, movie fans! Don’t you just hate it when:
You’re locked inside a building by padlock but you have the key to that padlock but it’s on a ring of several keys and the maniac you’re trying to get away from is mere steps way?
You have just successfully (and temporarily) fled said maniac—up stairs, of course!—but the room that you’ve selected to leap to the outside from has, fuuuuuuck, bars on its windows?
You’ve cleared your main obstacle (maniac) only to encounter a second obstacle (maniac dog)?!
Your search for an exit forces you into a crawlspace and, then what?! (Only one way to find out—get on your belly)?
You fall at least a story onto a glass roof that begins crack-crack-cracking in your ear that’s smooshed up against it, which soon may be a million little pieces of glass? Like any second now?
You’ve escaped the house that once seemed like your forever prison, and you swear you were in the clear, like blocks away, but yep, now you’re being dragged back in, what a day what a day!?
You’re holding a mallet, waiting for a maniac to walk through a doorway you’re strategically obscured alongside of but when he passes, you hit his hand (which to be fair is holding a gun) instead of his head because you’re suuuuuuuch an idiot?
If any of these tropes (or that last bit of one-off weirdness—why the fuck doesn’t he hit the maniac over the head?!?!) makes you squirm in your seat, then imagine all of them and more strung together like a necklace you’re wearing that keeps tightening around your neck for 88 minutes, and you have an idea of what it’s like to sit through Don’t Breathe. It’s scene after scene of suffocating tension.
Like director Fede Alvarez’s previous film, the 2013 remake of Evil Dead, Don’t Breathe is brutal, nasty, and extreme enough to be regularly borderline hilarious. Rocky (Jane Levy), Alex (Dylan Minnette), and Money (Daniel Zovatto) are a trio of thieves whose robbing is facilitated by Alex’s access to the keys and PIN numbers of houses protected by the home security systems his dad’s company provides. Though the group is prone to needless destruction like knocking over property for kicks and pissing in the house we see them break into, thus cruising for a bruising, Rocky has noble reasons for her thieving. She envisions stealing enough money so that she can run away to California with her younger sister, from the tiny house they live in with their abusive mother, who’s so cartoonishly grotesque that she implies Rocky’s recent influx of cash is a result of her turning tricks, blowjob hand motion and all. This harrowing domestic scene, like many of Don’t Breathe’s scenes, is reminiscent of earlier horror, in this case the kind of white-trash fantasia Rob Zombie envisioned in the prequel portion of his Halloween reboot.
As they plot and bicker about what will become their final robbery, Rocky, Alex, and Money roughly represent the ego, superego, and id, respectively. But it soon becomes clear that their collective competence is less than that of one person of average reasoning aptitude. Certainly, they are no match for their chosen target: A blind guy in a house in an otherwise abandoned Detroit neighborhood who’s sitting on piles of cash and, even more importantly, secrets that are reminiscent of several other movies. (If I name them, it may spoil things for you so avert your eyes for the rest of this parenthetical while I give a clue: One of these reference points seems to be a 2008 French movie whose title rhymes with “barters.”)
All of this is to say that these assholes picked the wrong disabled guy to fuck with. With bulging biceps and a full beard/head of hair that screams SILVER FOX VIRILITY, the blind man (literally, how Stephen Lang’s character is listed in the credits) proves himself to be one Murder Daddy. That Dylan Minnette’s Alex is such a baby-faced twink seems like no coincidence, especially since what he experiences at Murder Daddy’s hands is a series of little deaths (including being shot twice and being stabbed by garden shears, and after that he still gets up to defend himself/Rocky). It’s enough to make you wonder if Alvarez and his screenwriting partner Rodo Sayagues meant to render a seemingly mortal character so indestructible that the only rational explanation for his resilience is supernatural.
Don’t Breathe doesn’t ruminate much on its implausibility because it doesn’t have time to do much besides charge ahead at your jugular. Because it starts out with so few potential prey, it needs its characters to escape death repeatedly in order for this to have a proper feature’s running time. It’s a cat-and-mouse scenario, except the mice have a bunch of extra lives, too.
Rocky, in classic final girl form as described by Carol J. Clover, carries a masculine name. However, she isn’t otherwise masculinized for the sake of being relatable to the teenage boys that make up the lion’s share of the horror audience—her fate, in fact (at least at some point, for however fleeting a period of time), hinges on her womanhood and ability to bear children.
The way this plays out finds Don’t Breathe hitting its gross-out peak, and rather deliriously. There’s an image that feels more in debt to John Waters than any straightforward horror that came (if you’ve seen the movie, you saw what I did there) before it. It’s a pile of cherries on the movie’s pile of cinematic extremity.
Revealing that set piece would be the closest I could come to actually ruining Don’t Breathe for you, because you know what’s going to happen in the end, and you also know that at the last second, everything you know will be called to question in a bald-faced attempt to leave the door open for a sequel, should audiences be interested in one. They likely will be. Don’t Breathe is a dumb horror movie, through and through, and if you’re into that sort of thing, you know that dumb horror is its own specific flavor, and that it’s rare these days for a particularly effective example to come along. This is one of those.