The Bling Ring meets Taken in the sophomore outing from director Fede Alvarez (2013's Evil Dead remake), easily one of the most assured and immersive horror films in recent memory. This is a picture with a certain amount of Wait Until Dark (1967) in its DNA, as well, given that it tells the story of a blind man who's the victim of a home invasion. Well, his home is invaded, anyway.
The setting is the real-life dystopia of modern-day Detroit. Our protagonists are three twentysomethings looking to better themselves the easy way. Rocky (Jane Levy), Money (Daniel Zovatto) and Alex (Dylan Minnette) can't find jobs, but they can find suburban domiciles ripe for breaking into, thanks to Alex's dad's home-security business.
Each of the three has a justification for this life of small-time crime. Rocky's mother is an abusive piece of work, and she dreams of leaving and bringing her younger sister with her to California. Money is a wannabe gangsta who fancies himself a ladies' man. Alex is a fresh-faced kid who has a crush on Rocky and organizes the robberies as a means of keeping her as safe as possible, with the bonus of getting to hang with her.
When the three hear about an old blind guy who lives in a mostly abandoned neighborhood, supposedly with a fortune in cold hard cash hidden in his house, it's like they've won the lottery. They think they've lucked into the easiest money of their lives, not to mention the biggest haul. What could go wrong?
Well, for starters, it turns out the guy is a vet with a very particular set of skills. He lost his sight when shrapnel from a grenade sliced and diced his eyes to hell. That isn't the only thing he's lost. His daughter was killed in a car accident caused by a rich girl, hence the million or so in settlement money lying around. When the trio tiptoes into his place in the middle of the night, they find him asleep in bed, a home movie of the little girl playing on his television. As his uninvited guests are about to learn, the dude's a volcano of rage just waiting for a reason to explode.
They give him a good one. Played by a committed Stephen Lang, their target is their worst nightmare, a highly trained hard-ass who can kill with his eyes closed. Alvarez and cowriter Rodo Sayagues orchestrate a white-knuckle game of cat and mouse that, I should add, takes place after the Blind Man (that's how he's credited) locks the thieves in the house. It doesn't get better than the moment when the old guy cuts the power, stranding the disoriented young people in the darkness he's learned to navigate so deftly.
Though it does get weirder. What Alvarez lacks in experience, he makes up for in great instincts; just when you think you know who's guilty and who's innocent, he starts flipping open narrative trap doors. By Act Three, we've suddenly got a whole new moral dynamic on our hands, and audience sympathies are likely to do some serious shifting. Movie critic law prohibits my saying more. Except two words: turkey baster. Thanksgiving, I guarantee you, will never be quite the same.
Don't Breathe is smartly written, terrifically acted and propulsively directed with a wonderful feel for the material. No jump scares. No wearisome horror-film wisecracks. Just lean, mean, edge-of-your-seat movie making. Thrillers this wacked out and well crafted don't come along every day. Don't miss it.