Stephen Lang is a man with whom you’d best not trifle. That’s the clear message received after an offhand glance at his filmography, which is liberally seasoned with tough guy military roles, from Generals to Colonels, plus outlaws and ruthless businessmen. Don’t Breathe, the new film from Fede Alvarez, capitalizes on Lang’s popular image for character development economy, casting him as the over-the-hill version of the roughneck soldier audiences best recognize him for playing. But Alvarez is playing a trick on us, or maybe we’re playing a trick on ourselves: Lang isn’t the type to play helpless, and his blind, unnamed vet in Don’t Breathe is anything but. His story is part Zatoichi’s, part slasher flick.
That’s the film’s first twist of many—“twist” as in “tweak” rather than “deception.” The other significant twist is perspective, which Alvarez tinkers with enough to make the old slasher tradition feel damn near justifiable. You know the formula: Kids go to the woods, kids run into maniac, kids get dead, with the viewer rooting for the maniac at the expense of the kids. It’s a matter of attitude. Slasher kids are almost always insufferable. They’re also generic. You can scarcely tell the victims-to-be in a Halloween film from those in a Friday the 13th film, or from any of the countless low-fi slashers spawned by their success. Alvarez has given us a reason to actively side with Lang against the trio of teens that break into his house to rob him of his fortune: They’re crooks. Crooks with heart, sure, but crooks all the same.
Making that very slight change to the horror subgenre playbook, and setting most of the action inside a crumbling house, adds surprising vitality to Don’t Breathe’s well-worn elements. The teens—Rocky (Jane Levy), her punk boyfriend, Money (Daniel Zovatto), and their friend Alex (Dylan Minnette)—aren’t bad people per se, just normal people caught in bad life cycles. Robbing Lang, credited solely as “The Blind Man,” is their way out of said cycles, and out of Detroit, a city that cinema tells us can only trap its inhabitants in squalor and misery. It seems that he’s sitting on a substantial fortune earned via court settlement, following an accident that left his daughter dead. Maybe two wrongs don’t make a right. Maybe you also haven’t seen Detroit through Alvarez’s lens. Put in short, it’s a real shithole. Put in longer terms, it’s a decaying world forgotten by time and society. You’d want to get the hell out of there, too.
So they bust into The Blind Man’s spot and try to steal his cash, not realizing that they’ve made a fatal miscalculation. Turns out he’s the Anti-Daredevil, sensitive to any sound no matter how hushed. (If there was ever a time the “no cell reception” trope might come in handy, this would be it.) Worse, he can navigate his home better sans sight than our protagonists can with full use of their eyeballs. It’s cat and mice stuff, a home invasion flick married to the best of slasher fare: Bloodshed and viscera, tension and high anxiety. Don’t Breathe sports a small cast, and as such trades what normally qualifies as a body count for a wound count. Oh people die, make no mistake, but Alvarez treats his deaths the way fine dining restaurants dole out portions: Less is more, because each item on your plate is divine to the palate, assuming that uncontrollably squirming in your seat is to your taste.
If not, Don’t Breathe won’t be a very satisfying meal. Modern horror moviegoers are by and large immune to bush-league attempts at getting under the skin. They anticipate the killer’s sudden appearance in the frame, keeping their sights trained on visual dead space, a favorite hiding spot of all big screen psychos. But Alvarez is good enough at making movies that he’s able to put the terror of The Blind Man in us even when we correctly guess where he’ll pop up next. Credit for that should go to Lang, too, for his superb work as the film’s de facto monster: He’s inhuman in the fashion of Michael Myers or Jason Voorhees, an unstoppable murder machine, but his story is rooted in human anguish. Before all turns to mayhem, we observe him snoozing in bed, with a video of his late daughter playing in the background as white noise.
The film dares us to empathize with him, and to an extent we can, even after a bonkers third act reveal challenges our empathy without challenging Alvarez’s narrative. He does not Shyamalan us so much as he—well, you know what? You’re better off finding out for yourself. Up until that thematic pivot, Don’t Breathe presents as unassuming a smart, ferocious, relentlessly scary film as anything released in the post-Blumhouse boom, anchored by Lang’s excellency and by Alvarez’s top drawer craft. Tracking shots create a sense of spatial discipline and the set becomes a character unto itself, with the promise of fresh brutality waiting around every corner. But once Alvarez takes us over the “taut horror thriller” threshold, his picture becomes something else entirely, something fraught, nauseating and maybe just a bit #problematic. Your mileage may vary.
Good on him for trying, though. Don’t Breathe offers an intimate vision of an unexpected, immensely messed up place after an hour and change of sustained dread, but that doesn’t mean the former undoes the latter. Alvarez, like The Blind Man, proves he’s possessed of ruthless instinct and capable of much more than splatter-fests like his last film, 2013’s Evil Dead reboot. (Levy starred in that film, too, and clearly enjoyed being put through the ringer enough to team with Alvarez for another round of suffering.) He knows what his audience wants, and he’s happy to provide, but he does so with style, brio and not an ounce of mercy.
Director: Fede Alvarez
Writer: Fede Alvarez, Rodo Sayagues
Starring: Jane Levy, Stephen Lang, Dylan Minnette, Daniel Zovatto
Release Date: August 26, 2016
Boston-based critic Andy Crump has been writing about film online since 2009, and has been contributing to Paste Magazine since 2013. He writes additional words for Movie Mezzanine, The Playlist, and Birth. Movies. Death., and is a member of the Online Film Critics Society and the Boston Online Film Critics Association. You can follow him on Twitter and find his collected writing at his personal blog. He is composed of roughly 65% craft beer.