This home invasion horror-thriller from the Evil Dead remake director Fede Alvarez begins with a fine setup, has some fantastically tense moments in the second act but it pushes its simple and believable premise to ludicrous extremes by its conclusion. While Don’t Breathe isn’t as downright scary as it’s been made out to be by its trailers, it uses the small details in the frame to ratchet up the suspense and make good on those setups with some well-earned payoffs. Unfortunately, there’s a lack of variation within this confined setting and the limited number of characters that leads to some repetitive storytelling that eventually wears out its welcome.
The plot brings together three desperate delinquents Alex (Dylan Minnette), Rocky (Jane Levy) and her boyfriend Money (Daniel Zovatto) as they break into houses and steal valuables throughout run-down areas of Detroit. After a particularly unlucrative heist, Money gets a tip on a house whose owner (Stephen Lang) supposedly has $300,000 in cash stored away but when they arrive at the man’s home, they discover that he’s completely blind and lives only with his dog. Seeing this as an easy opportunity, the trio follow through with their plan but soon found out that their victim isn’t nearly as helpless as they previously assumed.
As one might expect, these moments during the initial break-in when the tables slowly begin to turn make up the best and most memorable sections of the film. The sound design and the bass-heavy score are both impeccable as the three thieves snoop around to get the lay of the land and narrowly avoid creaky floorboards and broken pieces of glass. When their presence is detected by the blind man and he seems to gain the upper hand on his intruders, every cell phone vibration and, as the title suggests, every breath is treated with tremendous caution and trepidation.
A problem develops as the story progresses where empathy and morality are spread too thin even among its four (five, if you count the dog) characters and it becomes harder to find someone to root for, even in their dire circumstances. Rocky has a rocky home life, to say the least, and plots to use the newly-acquired cash to move to California with her younger sister but even her motivations become more muddled as greed takes over as her defining character trait. On the other side of things, the blind man earns sympathy from his debilitating condition but without giving too much away, there are story elements introduced that highlight some loathsome behavior on his part as well.
Maybe some more thorough character development early on could have helped avoid these issues but Alvarez makes it clear that he doesn’t want to waste any time getting into the movie’s primary location. With an 88 minute runtime, most of which takes place in real time, the focus is intentionally kept tight on the cat-and-mouse predicament without allowing for the kind of nuance that could have made this a more complete thriller. If you’re looking for lean and mean nail-biter, this one does deliver with some well-conceived setpieces but don’t expect Don’t Breathe to leave you breathless.