Earlier this year, I was impressed by the intense indie-thriller Green Room. It merged unique characters, a real-world approach and bursts of terrifying violence. That film helped to pique my interest in the horror-thriller genre once again and as such, I was interested to see the newest low-budget thriller Don’t Breathe.
This newest film from writer and director Fede Alverez is a far cry from his previous film, the gory remake of the classic horror film The Evil Dead. Not only is he working off a more original idea, as original as any thriller idea can be, this film buys into the “less is more” mentality similar to that of Green Room. Instead of delving into possession and evil spirits, as in Evil Dead, we are grounded in a very real world with fairly realistic events and a different type of antagonist than we’re used to.
Blind characters are nothing new in cinema. Even blind characters that use their other senses to be more capable than those with full eyesight are common enough, like Daredevil or the classic Japanese character Zatoichi. Here we are given another one, simply credited as The Blind Man (Stephen Lang), a war vet wounded in battle resulting in his blindness, whose daughter was then killed when she was struck by a car. Tragic, right? Just hearing that makes him sound like the protagonist, the person we should be rooting for, however there is more to him than meets the eye (pun intended).
The story of Don’t Breathe follows a trio of thieves- Rocky (Jane levy), her boyfriend Money (Daniel Zovatto) and Alex (Dylan Minnette). We meet them as they are breaking into a home, using the key and an alarm code we later find out Alex stole from his father who works for a home security company. How they act during the burglary clues us in to their personalities, with Rocky seeking a better life for herself, Alex being the cautious and practical brains of the operation, and Money being a one-dimensional personification of douchiness as he pees all over the living room floor and mocks Alex’s practicality.
Money then receives a hot tip on a new mark, a blind veteran who received a hefty settlement after the aforementioned death of his daughter. With the amount of money they could get, it would be enough for Rocky to take her little sister and leave the desolate city of Detroit and their abusive mother. Even though Alex finds it risky, and morally questionable given the target, he ultimately agrees to help for the sake of Rocky. The trio subsequently breaks in to the fortified house, only to find out the blind veteran is more capable than he seems, and that he has demons of his own. The trio must quickly find their way out of the house before the Blind Man (and his attack dog) can find the trespassers and dispatch his own form of justice.
The interesting aspect of this movie is how it treats the characters. We are not just given flawed protagonists, they are petty criminals who agree to rob a blind veteran of the money he was given for his daughter’s untimely death. That right there would make them the villain of any other movie, and yet we sympathize with them…sort of. We really just sympathize with Rocky as we see her doing this out of an act of desperation to escape her situation. Money remains a fairly stereotypical aggressive thug type and Alex isn’t really given much of a back story or motivation beyond his crush on Rocky.
And that was one of my issues with this film- why was Alex doing this? He seemed to be smart, he wasn’t poor and we weren’t given any indication that he had a rough home life. Alex doesn’t seem to fit in with the other two, despite having a thing for Rocky, and this really makes me wonder why he’s doing it. In addition, there are some questionable moments while they’re in the house, for example Money has the means to temporarily knock out the Blind Man right after they break in by filling his bedroom with a certain gas while he’s sleeping, and somehow this doesn’t work on him. Are we to assume that dumbass Money messed it up? Or perhaps the Blind Man was able to smell the gas and then cover his nose and mouth before it rendered him unconscious?
Even though there are a few moments of questionable logic, this is a surprisingly smart film for a thriller. While many films in this type of genre are full of idiotic characters with the IQ of a peanut, this is one of the few that maintains fairly realistic actions (or reactions) from our protagonists- with a couple exceptions I won’t get into in order to avoid spoilers. Lang’s Blind Man almost immediately shows us, and them, how dangerous he is even without his eyesight (he is at near Daredevil skill level), making the characters’ fear and avoidance in trying to attack him head-on a reasonable response.
The Blind Man also proves to be a solid antagonist. With his impeccable reflexes, impressive strength, military training and fine-tuned hearing, he is a formidable threat. Combine that with the creaky floors, barred windows and the attack dog, and the burglars are clearly in over their heads. It is made even worse that the Blind Man knows every inch of the home by memory, allowing him to predict the paths of the thieves and head them off before they can escape, which also keeps us on our toes. And even though he is brutal and aggressive, this film never focuses on the violence too much with there being virtually no gore and rarely is there a focus on the wounds inflicted.
Fortunately, the aforementioned smartness of this film also carries over to the scary moments. Sure, we have a few cheap jump scares, but much of the dread comes more naturally. For instance, as Money creeps into the Blind Man’s bedroom to plant the knockout gas, we get a close up as he prepares the plastic bottle and when we cut to a pulled back shot we see the Blind Man is suddenly sitting up in his bed, with Money and the audience collectively holding their breath to see if the Blind Man heard the subtle floor creaks or the plastic bottle.
Don’t Breathe may not be the most intense or terrifying thriller out there, and for my money Green Room is better in almost every aspect, however there is a lot to like about this movie. By flipping the script on our expectations, making the traditional villains into somewhat-sympathetic protagonists and taking an obvious sympathetic hero and turning him into a twisted antagonist, this becomes a more unique film. Despite being somewhat predictable in places, it still contains a few twists and is undeniably enjoyable, making this one of the better thrillers I’ve seen in recent years, and one that any fan of the genre should not miss.
Andy Snyder is a writer and regular contributor for Happy Dragon Pictures. He loves video games, films from all over the world, screenwriting and kittens.