Uruguayan director Fede Alvarez, the mastermind behind 2013's "Evil Dead" remake, flexes his filmmaking muscle with "Don't Breathe," a stylish home invasion horror-thriller that makes for a diabolically chilling end-of-summer treat.
Petty thief Rocky (Jane Levy), her friend Alex (Dylan Minnette), and Rocky's macho boyfriend, Money (Daniel Zovatto), have been pulling off a string of robberies, selecting their targets from information they glean from the home security company owned by Alex's father. When they learn that a blind Iraq War veteran (Stephen Lang) may have a fortune stashed away in his home (thanks to a large settlement following the accidental death of his daughter), it seems like an easy final job to end this chapter of their lives.
Rocky's goal, we learn, is to wrangle up enough money to get her and her kid sister to California, where she hopes they'll have a better life, away from their dreadful mother. The girls' bleak home life is set up in a cartoonish scene establishing their mother as a harpy from the depths of Hell. Alex, the most decent of the three, harbors a not-so-secret crush on Rocky, which is clearly the sole reason he's involved in their criminal schemes in the first place. Money, meanwhile is pretty much just a thug.
The last hold-out on a street of abandoned homes in what once was a middle-class Detroit neighborhood, the army vet's house is isolated. He keeps an attack dog for protection, but that's easily dealt with, and the job seems like it'll be a piece of cake. But once inside his home, the teens find that the blind man isn't the helpless mark they assumed him to be. When he starts padlocking the doors and boarding up the windows to keep the home invaders from escaping, it's clear they've made a terrible mistake.
While the thieves first break in, the camera glides through the house as they explore, searching for hiding places where the money might be stashed. The sequence neatly and efficiently establishes the house's floor plan as Alvarez, cinematographer Pedro Luque, and production designer Naaman Marshall plant clues and details to be exploited later on.
Eventually, Rocky and Alex stumble upon the Blind Man's own terrible secrets hidden away in the depths of his home. At this point the film flips the tables, making Lang's character so monstrously evil and depraved that our sympathies swing back around to the criminals, who we're forced to decide aren't so bad in comparison. It's a fun narrative switch, though things might have been even more interesting if the characters had remained on morally equal footing. Credited only as The Blind Man, Lang is a force to be reckoned with. A picture of brute strength -- muscles tensed, head cocked as he stands silently, sensing his prey's movements, he's a terrifying antagonist.
The centerpiece of the film is a hair-raising scene in which the Blind Man has cornered the intruders in the basement and cuts the power, throwing them into darkness and tipping the situation to his advantage. Shot in night vision -- rendered here in a dull grayish-green tinge -- and unfolding mostly in terrifying silence, it's a magnificently staged sequence.
From the beginning, Alvarez plays with sound and heightened auditory sense. Seemingly insignificant sounds, like the burning of cigarettes being smoked, are cranked up until they practically crackle in our ears. The device makes us acutely aware of these noises, training us for later on when we're listening with bated breath for any telltale sounds that could give our antiheroes away. Creaking floorboards, buzzing cell phones, or the clack of a glass shard embedded in the bottom of a shoe as it taps against the ground might as well be blaring alarms. I'd say it's award-worthy sound design, but the Oscars tend to overlook grimy little genre flicks like this. The sounds are perfectly complemented by composer Roque Baños's musical score, which utilizes homemade instruments and household objects to create a unique soundscape for the film.
Relentlessly tense and elegantly constructed (though perhaps "elegant" isn't the right word for a film that goes to the luridly nasty places this one does) the film is a thrilling ride. While you could probably read something into the film about our country's current economic state, class divisions, and biased criminal justice system, as well as the social and moral decay that arise from them, really the film's only interest is in scaring the pants off you. With the squirm-inducing, armrest-gripping atmosphere Alvarez creates, "Don't Breathe" provides the wickedly entertaining last gasp of summer thrills.
Check back on Friday for additional film coverage, including reviews of "Miss Sharon Jones!" and "Little Men."