The home-invasion thriller gets turned inside out in “Don’t Breathe,” the story of three burglars (Jane Levy, Dylan Minnette and Daniel Zovatto) who target a blind Iraq War veteran (Stephen Lang) who has $300,000 stashed away in his house. The twist is that the thieves are nice, happy-go-lucky youngsters who only go around breaking and entering because life in Detroit is tough. Also, they never hurt anyone, so please don’t judge them.
What’s worse, their seemingly easy target turns out to be a psycho with psychological scars deeper and more demented than standard-issue PTSD. If that’s still not enough to make you root for characters who would traditionally be villains in any other movie, “Don’t Breathe” drops a big twist, already spoiled in the film’s trailers, that leaves no question who the real monsters here are.
The film’s lack of moral shading is disappointing. What starts out as an intriguing riff on “Wait Until Dark” told from the point of view of Alan Arkin’s criminal becomes another exercise in monster-on-the-loose horror shenanigans. For a while, director Fede Alvarez, who also co-wrote the screenplay with Rodo Sayagues, gets by on sheer style and technical bravura. The first half of “Don’t Breathe” contains several taut setpieces in which sound (or the absence of it) plays a critical role, and the craftsmanship of the filmmaking is impressive — a retro pleasure.
After they’ve entered the home, the burglars must try to be as quiet as possible, because the blind man knows every inch of his cavernous loft. He may not be able to see the intruders, but he can track them by the sound of their breathing. He also has no qualms about killing them. Creaky floorboards have never been this treacherous.
In the film’s best sequence, the man (whose name we never learn) turns the tables on his visitors simply by flicking the lights off, making them stumble around inside a dark, cramped cellar (cinematographer Pedro Luque conveys the terror of being chased by a lunatic in absolute darkness without resorting to traditional, green-hued night vision). The movie even pulls off the mean trick of not giving Lang any dialogue for almost an hour of screen time (the hulking, brutal actor doesn’t need lines to convey menace).
Eventually, though, he starts talking, and he never shuts up. “Don’t Breathe” gets sillier and more ludicrous as it goes along, which is typical for the horror genre. But the movie would have fared better if Alvarez spent as much effort on his characters as he does on his camerawork. Like his previous picture, the 2013 “Evil Dead” remake, “Don’t Breathe” feels weightless and inconsequential despite the increasingly horrific things that transpire, because terror and indifference don’t go well together. You start out fearing “Don’t Breathe,” but by the end you’re laughing at it — and the humor is not intentional.
Cast: Jane Levy, Dylan Minnette, Daniel Zovatto, Stephen Lang, Emma Bercovici.
Director: Fede Alvarez.
Screenwriters: Fede Alvarez, Rodo Sayagues.
A Screen Gems release. Running time: 88 minutes. Vulgar language, strong violence, gore, sexual situations, some unspeakable business with a turkey baster. Playing at area theaters.