February 2021

Don’t Breathe (2016)

DIRECTOR: Fede Alvarez

CAST: Jane Levy, Dylan Minnette, Daniel Zovatto, Stephen Lang


Don’t Breathe is a slight but compulsively watchable little “boxed-in” thriller (featuring characters trapped in one enclosed location for most of the runtime) that gets in, gets the job done, and gets out. It won’t go down as a thriller classic, but it’s a serviceable little refrigerator movie.

Our protagonists are the trio of Rocky (Jane Levy), Alex (Dylan Minnette), and Money (Daniel Zovatto), small-time burglars trying to scrounge together enough cash to say goodbye to Detroit and split for the sunny beaches of California. To this end, they set their sights on one last score (anyone whose seen many movies knows how smoothly those usually go): robbing an isolated house owned by a blind Army veteran (Stephen Lang) who was the recipient of a hefty settlement after his daughter’s death in a car accident. But once inside the house, things soon go awry when The Blind Man turns out to not be as harmless as he seems and the thieves stumble across a dark secret, and soon Rocky, Alex, and Money are fighting for their lives.

Don’t Breathe subverts a couple horror movie tropes by inverting the home invasion scenario and telling it from the perspective of the invaders, with the homeowner the “villain”, and also throwing in an interesting twist by making him blind (though the burglars find this isn’t as much of a hindrance as they might think). This comes into play in an effective scene when The Blind Man plunges the room into darkness. Up to this point, the thieves have a slight advantage in the power of sight, but now they’re in the same darkness he lives in, and because he’s accustomed to it, he now has the edge. The inversion of the home invasion scenario also throws in a little moral ambiguity; at least initially one might find Rocky, Alex, and Money not the most sympathetic of horror movie fodder; after all, they’re burglars, not innocent victims, and the nameless Blind Man’s actions, at least up to a point, could be seen as self-defense. To address these issues, the filmmakers throw in some character-establishing scenes letting us know that Rocky is motivated by getting her little sister out of their abusive home environment, and we eventually learn The Blind Man is hiding more dark secrets besides an aptitude for dispatching intruders. He’s also got a ferocious Rottweiler thrown in as a further plot complication. The characters are thin, but that’s nothing new in horror movies, and Rocky and Alex eventually generate sufficient rooting interest in seeing them make it out alive (Money is the most unsympathetic of the trio, and also the first dispatched).

As with most indie horror flicks, there’s no A-listers to be found in the cast. Probably the best-known face is Stephen Lang, and he’s a character actor, not a “big star”. Jane Levy and Dylan Minnette have a few credits under their belts (Levy is reunited with director Fede Alvarez from his 2013 debut Evil Dead, pushing herself further toward “scream queen” status), but there’s no real “name” onhand. The acting isn’t memorable but it’s adequate to the occasion, with Levy and Minnette making Rocky and Alex likable enough for us to have a scrap of interest in their survival. As for our “villain”, Stephen Lang doesn’t have a lot demanded of him—apart from a short monologue halfway through explaining some of his motivation, he doesn’t have much dialogue—but he’s sufficiently physically imposing and relentless to be an ominous presence.

It’s not a surprise that Don’t Breathe transcended its low budget to be a sleeper hit, making $157 million against a budget of only $9 million. It’s slight and insubstantial, but it’s deviously effective at its modest goals of providing suspense-fueled, claustrophobic, compulsive viewing.

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