Fede Alvarez’s Don’t Breathe is a command, both to the characters and to us. The housebound thriller tiptoes behind three robbers who break into a blind Army veteran’s home and awaken the angry giant, who grabs a gun and a hammer and nails them inside. If he hears a footstep, he shoots. To survive, the characters get so quiet you can hear their heartbeats. Spooks don’t get more primal.
Alvarez sets the slaying in a foreclosed block of modern Detroit, to explain why neither the neighbors nor the cops come knocking. But his script reaches into the past to grab pieces of ancient nightmares — the moralism of Goldilocks and the Three Bears starring the sightless Cyclops from the Odyssey. When Stephen Lang’s (Avatar’s Colonel Quaritch) gray-haired brute first lurches out of bed and pads toward a strange noise, his muscles fill the doorframe while dark shadows submerge his useless eyes. He looks monstrous. But he’s the victim — legally, he’s acting in self-defense, even when corpses hit the floor.
Still, we can’t help but side with sweet-faced antiheroine Rocky, who, played by rising actress Jane Levy, has big, blubbery blue peepers. Levy also starred in Alvarez’s Evil Dead reboot, and here she’s excellent in a fundamentally miscast role. Even covered in sketchy tattoos, she looks as much like a two-bit criminal as Ellen DeGeneres. A young Reese Witherspoon could maybe have pulled off the role — the set of her chin says she’s a blonde who’ll throw the first punch. As for Rocky’s coconspirators, one’s an earnest dweeb (Dylan Minnette), the other a cartoon bad boyfriend (Daniel Zovatto), complete with a dollar sign inked on his neck. Her mom’s even worse: a beer-swilling witch whom even Eminem, the bard of wicked Michigan mamas, would wave off as phony.
Alvarez isn’t interested in character, anyway. Don’t Breathe is stripped down to the basics: a dark, hushed house, heavy with dread, and a thousand things that make us choke on a scream, from a furious Rottweiler to a bit of broken glass that turns Rocky’s sneaker into a tap shoe. It’s effective misery. At one point, the camera stops to double-take at the padlock the trio doesn’t see. Later, Alvarez uses a lens trick to make a door to freedom recede into gloom. Our hearts plummet — we feel as desperate as this girl who can’t escape. She’s snapped back inside so many times you’d think there was a rubber band on her spine. By the end of the film, we’re all exhausted. I was so tense my shoulders ached.
There’s one scene that crosses the line from visceral to crass, which cheapens the film. Otherwise, Don’t Breathe is a small delight, like stumbling across a shiny silver dollar. Alvarez knows the size of his ambitions. He’s written one great ghoul, surrounded him with targets, and simply let him let rip. But Lang, using the creaky voice of a man who hasn’t spoken much in years, gives his groping soldier just enough empathy that as we leave this fun chiller, watery eyes adjusting to the light, a whispered question echoes in our heads: Justice is blind — have we been blind to it?