The first shot in Don’t Breathe is a long one. We start high above a city road and come down, pushing in on the image of a man dragging a woman’s body down the middle of a street. It’s the middle of the day, but the road is deserted. The lurching, bearded figure hauls his prey—dead? Unconscious? We can’t say—with slow resolve and purpose. He doesn’t worry about being caught. He’s just trying to make his way home.
The sight is jarring but narratively useful. We get a sense of the isolation The Blind Man (Stephen Lang) lives in: His Detroit home is the last house standing on a street that practically defines blight. We also get a sense of the brutality to come: the woman being dragged is Rocky (Jane Levy), and it is her desperation to escape her surroundings that has put her in this predicament.
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We flash back to the setup. Rocky is one of a trio of young adults robbing homes in the Motor City. Her boyfriend, Money (Daniel Zovatto), acts as the fence for the goods they take. Alex (Dylan Minnette) is the brain behind the operation: His dad runs a security company, and he has copies of the keys to all the homes under its protection. The three thieves enter homes on the sly—unlocking doors, disarming sirens—pick up some goods to hock, then vacate, smashing a window as they depart so no one’s the wiser about how they got in and out.
Rocky, a single mother, lives with her own mom—a nasty, abusive piece of work, herself a single mother. She wants to flee to the coast, somewhere with beaches and waves. Her chance arrives in the form of The Blind Man. His house is both protected by Alex’s dad’s company and, supposedly, filled with six figures worth of cash he received in a settlement with the family of the teen who killed his daughter in a car accident.
So the gang breaks in and discovers it has bitten off more than it can chew. This is no ordinary blind man. He’s a Gulf War vet blinded in the line of duty, and not the least bit afraid of the punks who have come into his home uninvited. Especially since he has some vile secrets of his own to protect.
What follows is a stylish, claustrophobic game of cat and mouse. Fede Alvarez, who directed the Evil Dead remake a few years back, lets the camera wander around the home as his robbers rummage, giving us a sense of the nooks and crannies we will examine in greater detail later. Especially impressive is a sequence filmed in the dark. As our "heroes" stumble about in a night vision-shot basement, we understand how The Blind Man makes his way through the world. It’s a type of travel-by-landmark, spinning a fan on a shelf here, touching a beam overhead there, which contrasts nicely with the random groping of Rocky and her friends.
Lang is delightfully menacing, truly one of the more underappreciated character actors of our day. He’s equally good as a blind man mercilessly defending his home as a gruff intergalactic mercenary (Avatar) or cowardly cowboy (Tombstone).
Don’t Breathe isn’t for everyone, obviously: It’s a hard-R horror film, one that earns its rating not only via violence and language but also by its unrelenting sense of terror and dark third-act twist. But if you’re looking for something scary, this is the first great horror film of the spooky season.