Starring: Jane Levy, Dylan Minnette, Stephen Lang, Daniel Zovatto
Rated R for Terror, Violence, Disturbing Content, and Language including Sexual References
"Don't Breathe" works. Let's just get that out of the way. It's tense and scary, and contains more than a few surprises (at least one of which approaches the level of shock in "Seven"). The performances are uniformly strong and it avoids common traps of the genre. It's easy to believe that these events could plausibly happen.
Rocky (Levy), Alex (Minnette), and Money (Zovatto) are three friends who commit petty crime to make ends meet. Unlike most thieves in horror movies, these guys are smart. "No money and a ten thousand dollar limit," Alex warns them. They know that going over that limit is grand larceny with a ten year sentence. They only rob houses that have the security system from a company that Alex's dad works at, since they know the ins and outs of it. But small scores aren't getting them very far, and all three are desperate to get out of Detroit. Money hears of a man who won a $300,000 dollar settlement after his daughter was killed in a car wreck. Alex is hesitant since the repercussions would be huge if they got caught, but they would all be able to go to California instantly if they pull it off, so he eventually relents. When they case the house, they discover that the owner (Lang) is a blind, virtual shut-in with a big Rottweiler at his beck and call. They go at night and drug the man and the dog, but then the man wakes up...
The movie gets a lot of tension from claustrophobia. The three thieves, who despite their intentions remain sympathetic, are trapped in a house with a man who is far more dangerous than they anticipated. Like Daredevil, his other senses have increased to compensate for his lack of sight. And he's no scared pushover; he has no qualms about killing his intruders (which, Alex points out, he is legally able to do since Money brought a gun). Director Fede Alvarez gets a lot of mileage and tension out of closed spaces, hiding from a pursuer, and being pursued by a smart, intelligent adversary who wants to kill you.
What makes this film work is that the characters are smart. Sure, they're doing something with questionable motives and taking advantage of someone who initially appears to be at a disadvantage, but they know what they're doing and are quite resourceful. But so is their opponent. They have the ability of sight, but he knows the house and has a gun (and isn't afraid to use it).
I'll be honest. I wasn't looking forward to this movie when I realized that the director and female lead were both responsible from that utterly worthless "Evil Dead" remake. That movie was flat out stupid. But freed from the need to make a cheap, bloody cash cow and make a movie that he wanted to make, Alvarez gets to stretch his talents and show us what he's capable of. The results are night and day. Likewise, his star Jane Levy is also better. She was awful in the previous movie, but creates a likable heroine here. Veteran actor Stephen Lang is terrific except when he talks; I've always thought his voice was hammy, but here he talks in a low croak that sounds like fingernails on the blackboard. Fortunately, he doesn't have a lot of dialogue. Their co-stars, Dylan Minnette (looking uncannily similar to Dylan O'Brien) as the helpful Alex and Daniel Zovatto as the loose cannon Money are also very good.
One criticism I have is the opening scene. Yes, this is one of those movies that starts out in the middle and goes back to the beginning. It's a stylish move that works in certain cases, like in film noir, but not in a straightforward horror/thriller. It defuses some of the tension, but the film is well-crafted enough that we often forget it. Still, here it does nothing but waste time.
There aren't many reasons to go to the movies these days, with remakes, reboots, fan-only superhero movies and Seth Rogen's ego dominated the multiplex. But occasionally Hollywood takes a risk and ends up making a really good movie. This is one of those times.