Within the first few minutes of the mesmerizing home-invasion thriller Don’t Breathe, writer-director Fede Alvarez and co-writer Rodo Sayagues pull something clever enough to impress jaded psychological-horror fans, without boring the adrenaline junkies sitting next to them in the theater. After one gruesome opening shot that teases where the film is eventually going, Alvarez and Sayagues introduce their protagonists in the middle of robbing a well-appointed house. With minimal dialogue and no exposition, they make it clear who these characters are and what drives them.
Alex (Dylan Minnette), the mastermind who’s using his dad’s security-company connections to enable the break-ins, has rules about what and how much his group can take. He’s calculated those limits to avoid a grand larceny rap if they’re caught, and he follows his guidelines with methodical calm. But his crush object Rocky (Jane Levy) tries on their victims’ clothes and flops onto one of their beds, wallowing in a brief fantasy of luxury. And Rocky’s junior-thug boyfriend Money (Daniel Zovatto) gleefully smashes vases and masturbates onto the floor.
None of this is subtle, but it’s admirably deft and concise. After just a few minutes of tightly edited action, viewers know exactly who they’re watching: the anal planner, the angsty poor girl with rich aspirations, and the sneering rebel on a grotesque power trip. That ruthless economy and storytelling craft extend throughout the film, turning a potentially cheap exploitation horror film into the kind of breathless collective nightmare that’s best experienced in a theater, with hundreds of other gasping, whimpering viewers.
Those viewers may not like these protagonists much, which is fine. Money in particular is no hero; between his idiotically literal nickname, his childish destructiveness, and his habit of referring to Rocky as "my bitch," he's a horror movie comeuppance story waiting to happen. But Alvarez and Sayagues — who previously partnered on the 2013 Evil Dead remake, and have Sam Raimi's production backing again here — play crafty games with sympathy and morality as the movie wears on.
Money's fixer points him at a blind military veteran (Stephen Lang, credited solely as "The Blind Man") who has a large cache of cash from a legal settlement stored in his isolated, dilapidated Detroit home. Alex thinks the robbery is a terrible idea, but he goes along with it to help Rocky, who needs a big payday so she can move away from her abusive mother. But once they break in, circumstances trap them in the house they're trying to rob, with the armed and angry blind man stalking them from room to room. From the moment they step inside, Don't Breathe ramps up the intensity and the shock value until it's hard not to root for the invaders to at least escape with their lives.
Don't Breathe is an impressive script-flip from the 1967 classic Wait Until Dark, which has a blind woman trying to outsmart dangerous criminals who keep invading her small apartment. Like that film, Don't Breathe is all about ingenuity and natural advantages, as the sighted characters hold their breath and try to sneak around an opponent who's more familiar with the house's geography. And like that film, Don't Breathe is about tension that builds up to choking, edge-of-the-seat levels. Wait Until Dark turned home invader Alan Arkin into a primal, terrifying force, and Don't Breathe does the same thing with its violent, muscular homeowner, who spends much of the film operating by instinct, barely speaking, and repeatedly appearing from nowhere for sheer shock value.
But the film has just as much in common with Jeremy Saulnier's recent room-escape movie Green Room and Dan Trachtenberg's similarly claustrophobic 10 Cloverfield Lane, and it joins them as one of 2016's tensest horror films. (There are plenty of specific parallels with both, from a vicious dog used as a weapon to a hair-raising trip through ventilation shafts.) Like those films, Don't Breathe has no shortage of jump-scares, but it builds a much more convincing, sustained terror through efficient escalation and startlingly intense violence. The film takes endless advantage of the things the characters don't know. The Blind Man doesn't know how many people are in his house, or where they are. Alex and his crew don't know where the money is, assuming it's even in the house. Once things go south, they keep discovering new, unsuspected barriers to escape, and new horrors they hadn't suspected. Like the best claustrophobic thrillers, the film keeps finding clever new ways to complicate what initially seems like a limited setting with limited story options.
Alvarez and Sayagues also keep finding new ways to make viewers painfully aware of the movie's tight confines, dead ends, and outsized threats. Early on, they send the camera tearing through the house, establishing the space and pointedly focusing on elements that will come into play later: a heavy lock here, a potential weapon there. They carefully program their viewers to flinch at any noise. They shut down their protagonists' choices, which helps build the sympathy the film might otherwise lack. Horror films often rely on characters making dumb decisions and being punished for them, but after the initial bad decision here, the characters have to be admirably quick-witted and intelligent to stay alive. The performances are minimalistic and not entirely memorable — Zovatto is a one-note swagger machine, and Minnette mostly just looks lovelorn and then terrified. Only Levy distinguishes herself by injecting humanity and internal conflict into her role. But the actors are largely setpieces in a finely tuned deathtrap that's more about taut atmosphere than character development. The beautiful golden light spilling from the few bare wall sconces, the cluttered basement, and the well-appointed, lethal tool room are all as significant to the film as the characters.
Don't Breathe lets some key questions linger. A major point of the home-invaders' initial plan completely fails, and it's never clear why. The timeline for some larger events involving the Blind Man is fuzzy. There's no explanation for why Money's fixer is so sure the Blind Man keeps his cash in the house, rather than a bank. The film's final scene is an unnecessary coda that raises baffling questions without adding anything to the story. And the film's determination to veer into gross-out territory occasionally turns the high-strung tension into awkward laughs. There aren't enough trigger warnings in the world for the film's movement toward sexual assault, or its grotesque aftermath.
But Don't Breathe is still a thrilling experience that effectively puts the audience in the protagonists' place: uncertain, cringing, afraid to even breathe because of the potential consequences. Alvarez and Sayagues pull a neat trick in turning an elderly blind man into a looming, inhuman, scent-driven monster, like the alien creatures in Pitch Black, or the movement-oriented velociraptors in Jurassic Park. But for a long time, the film also doesn't let us forget that he's a lonely man dealing with some young punks out to steal his life savings. The film operates on such a lean, efficient basis that it has time to spare for contradictions and nuance. And above all, it has time to spare on making sure that different kinds of horror audiences will get drawn in, whether they're looking for well-crafted psychological tension, or just that satisfying glimmer of sheer throat-closing terror.