Review: No catching your breath in wild ‘Don’t Breathe’

Adam Graham
The Detroit News

“Don’t Breathe” is a breathless, visceral, nerve-racking thrill ride that doesn’t stop coming at you until its final gasps. Its title is the opposite of the message it should be sending. During its heart-stopping final 30 minutes, it should be reminding viewers they need to breathe.

Director Fede Alvarez, whose 2013 “Evil Dead” remake was an exercise in boundary-pushing extremes, has crafted a taut chiller that delivers real chills. In an era where horror movies are dominated by hauntings, ghost spirits and possessed children, “Don’t Breathe” offers up a real haunted house where each twist and turn is more frightening than the last.

The setting of this haunted house story hits especially close to home. On an abandoned block on Detroit’s west side on Buena Vista near Linwood (the film was mostly shot in Hungary, with only a few exteriors shot locally), a blind Gulf War vet (“Avatar’s” Steven Lang) lives alone. He collected a settlement after his daughter was killed by a motorist and is sitting on $300,000 in cash. When a group of three small-time hoods get wind of the fortune, they set out to rob him blind.

Those hoodlums are Rocky (Jane Levy), Alex (Dylan Minnette) and Money (Daniel Zovatto), who help themselves inside homes with the help of Alex’s family connections. (His father works for a home security company; oh, the irony.)

Alex is well aware of the laws of break-ins and what constitutes a greater offense (keep it under $10,000 and no guns), but the blind man’s stash is too good a score to pass up. So it’s on.

But the blind man is no slouch, and what the kids expect will be a routine smash and grab turns into something far more knotty. It’s unfair to give away any more of what “Don’t Breathe” has up its sleeve, but it keeps unfolding in unexpected new ways, and Alvarez (who co-wrote the screenplay with Rodo Sayagues) never lets his foot off the gas.

There are shades of “Panic Room” in the scenario, and Alvarez uses fluid camera movements to circle the interior of the home and the would-be robbers as they seek out the treasure. It’s very sleek and fast-paced, especially in the final act, when Alvarez stages one frenetic sequence after another. “Don’t Breathe” comes in at a brisk 90 minutes and hardly wastes a second.

Levy, something of Alvarez’ muse after he put her through the “Evil Dead” ringer, is strong here, but the film’s shifting moral complexities don’t make her an easy hero to root for. In “Don’t Breathe” there are no good guys, everyone’s dirty, and it shifts nimbly from a defend-your-home fantasy to a revenge thriller and beyond. (It should be stated that Minnette, a veteran of “Goosebumps” and “Alexander and the Terrible, seems a bit too wholesome to be caught up in a home invasion ring.)

With this as well as last year’s Detroit-set “It Follows,” the Motor City is becoming a hotbed setting for smart, well-crafted horror thrillers. This one’s a punch to the gut and blow to the head which has an intensity that lingers. After “Don’t Breathe,” you’ll need a breather.

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‘Don’t Breathe’


Rated R for terror, violence, disturbing content, and language including sexual references

Running time: 88 minutes