Being chased by a blind monster is one of the oldest tropes in the Western tradition, stretching all the way back to Homer, and popping up in things as innocuous as Jack and the Beanstalk (“I smell the blood of an Englishman”). And on that continuum, Don’t Breathe is closer to the fairy tale than the epic. It’s just as broad in its casting of heroes and villains, but doesn’t play into it’s cartoonishness anywhere near enough to make either endearing.
Our “heroes” (if we really stretch the term) are a trio of young Detroiters who rob houses in order to raise enough money to escape the crumbling city. Our protagonist, Rocky (Jane Levy), is in it to save herself and her (possibly mentally handicapped – seriously, watch the performance and tell me otherwise), little sister from a gratuitously broken home. Seriously, this family should get extra credits in dysfunction: They’re poor, and the mother’s a drunk who blames Rocky for her father leaving them and is currently dating a man with swastika tattoos.
Her two friends are Alex (Dylan Minnette), a friendzoned baby-face whose father owns the company that provides the security system for seemingly every house in Detroit (and is coded as at least middle-class – he’s only robbing houses to get closer to Rocky – which might make him the worst of the trio); and Money (Daniel Zovatto) a white “gangsta” with a dollar-sign neck tattoo and braids who is basically in the movie to die first.
Their next, and final, score is the house of a blind veteran (Stephen Lang – No, his character doesn’t get a real name), who is sitting on a six-digit nest-egg from his daughter’s manslaughter case…that he just has in cash in his house for some reason. But soon after breaking into this guy’s house, the trio find out that this blind guy is basically Daredevil, and he and his dog start fighting back using lethal force.
And it’s here that Don’t Breathe runs into a huge problem that it never is able to solve. Despite Rocky’s cartoonishly broken family, the main trio are still completely unsympathetic because they choose – and throughout the film keep on choosing rather than escaping – to try and rob this man. And even though the film goes to – again – cartoonish, lengths to make the blind vet even less sympathetic than Rocky and Alex, none of that makes Rocky and Alex any less terrible. Even if you’re never actively rooting for the blind man to kill the kids, you’re also never rooting for the kids to escape, because that would mean rooting for the same people who selfishly decided to rob someone they thought would be completely helpless.
This fact, plus the film’s opening minutes that reveal which one of the trio survives, severely handicap what is otherwise a mechanically phenomenal horror movie. Don’t Breathe actually feels a lot more like a really well constructed horror video-game – like Resident Evil 2 – rather than a horror movie. It smartly takes the time early on – while the trio has just broken into the house and is looking around for the money – to show us the layout of the house: These are the exits, these are the bedrooms and closets, the room with the tools (see: makeshift weapons) in it, and here’s the locked door with the big 2nd act secret behind it. So when shit eventually hits the fan, you’re just as familiar with the house as the protagonists, and can follow all of the running around the house geographically. This knowledge also makes the blind man’s ability to seemingly warp to different rooms easier to digest – he simply knows his house better than we do.
While none of the set-piece moments are wholly original, they’re almost all pulled off flawlessly. Yeah, you know the blind man is going to pop up somewhere behind the kids, but the movie expertly plays with the timing and camera to create suspense. In its best parts, Don’t Breathe applies equally to the audience as it does to its characters.
Also, Jane Levy makes for an excellent scream queen, and is way more believable as that cliché than she is as a daughter from a broken family. And with his muscled frame that completely dominates tight spaces like hallways and doorframes, and a voice that creaks as though he hasn’t spoken in years, Lang makes for a fantastic monster – even without the big reveal that attempts to definitely paint him as the character you’re supposed to root against.
Ultimately, Levy, Lang, and the very satisfying horror cinematography and direction deserve to be in a better story – a story with heroes you can actively root for, and that gives itself way more room to embrace how broad it is. Because as it is, Rocky’s big monologue that’s supposed to make us feel for her is so over-the-top melodramatic that it fails completely to elicit any emotion other than perhaps a pithy groan; and the movie’s big cathartic revenge moment is so tonally disconnected with everything else that you’re not sure whether the movie wants you to laugh at it or not.
Don’t Breathe is a difficult movie to recommend because where it works on so many mechanical levels that bad horror films fail at, it fails on fundamental story levels that mean none of what works is allowed to really pay off as it should. It’s the movie equivalent of a marathon runner with their laces tied together – someone who should be able to go the distance, but trips over one big dumb mistake.