Mouse Hunt: "Don't Breathe" plays like an overwhelmingly tense death grip

Don’t Breathe (2016) 
88 min., rated R.

This is how you do it. Showing up nearly every other home-invasion suspenser, “Don’t Breathe” is the kind of lean, mean thriller that takes a shrewdly simple premise with a minimalistic setting and knows how to milk it for maximum tension and stark intensity that never ebb. Uruguayan director Fede Alvarez, who made one of the more respectable horror remakes of yesteryear with 2013’s gleefully gore-soaked “Evil Dead,” has gone and formidably crafted one of 2016’s most memorable nerve-shredders that plays like a relentlessly and overwhelmingly tense death grip. With blessedly airtight plotting and a consistent sense of “what-would-you-do?” panic, “Don’t Breathe” is proof that viewers can still be thrilled.

Tired of her abusive home life, Rocky (Jane Levy) needs to get out of the slummy wasteland that is Detroit and escape to California to start a better life for her and her younger sister. In the meantime, she breaks into expensive homes and steals with thug boyfriend Money (Daniel Zovatto) and nice friend Alex (Dylan Minnette), whose father happens to the owner of a security system company with a key to homes in the area. For their final score, they get wind of a Gulf War vet allegedly sitting on $300,000, which he received as a settlement after his daughter was hit and killed by a car. When getting sight of the man (Stephen Lang), they realize he is blind—only one of them initially questions the morality of stealing from a blind person—and figure it will be “a piece of cake.” Rocky, Money and Alex get way more than they bargained for when they have vastly underestimated their target whose other senses are extremely heightened. Getting in wasn’t so much a problem as it will be getting out alive.

Narrative simplicity is a film’s best friend. It worked for 1967’s “Wait Until Dark” and 2002’s “Panic Room,” and it works again with a like-minded successor like “Don’t Breathe,” a wiry, resourceful chamber thriller that keeps churning out surprises in 88 minutes. From a no-fuss screenplay with efficiently drawn characters, writer-director Fede Alvarez and co-writer Rodo Sayagues shift sympathies, asking the viewer to align him or herself with the lesser of two evils, as the burglars become the victims and the one being burglarized turns out to be the victimizer. Every plot point seems set up for a reason and not just as a throwaway; a story Rocky tells about finding comfort in a ladybug when locked in her mother’s trunk as a child is not only painted with a lingering poignancy but will be recalled for the climax. As this cat-and-mice game plays out (most of it in real time), the film is cleverly constructed with ruthless efficiency like a Rube Goldberg contraption. It’s all very edge-of-your-seat stuff.

For every move the characters make that doesn’t correspond to the viewer’s instructions, director Fede Alvarez keeps upping the ante and finding more reasons for audiences to dig their fingernails into their armrest and bite them all off. He knows exactly what he’s doing, leaving one off balance when we expect genre standbys to be detonated. With his use of pin-drop silence and close calls, it is hard not to hold one’s breath or to keep quiet along with Rocky and Alex. His expert control on pacing and verve behind the camera is mightily impressive, too, even technically dazzling. As the trio of home invaders break in and case the joint for the loot, the camera fluidly moves through the floor and every which way in a seemingly unbroken shot, informing us where certain weapons are before the sleeping giant awakens. Tightly shot and edited like everything else, a basement-set sequence where The Blind Man forces a total blackout is ingeniously conceived in particular, lending immersion to the way its actors are actually stumbling around in the darkness and how the scene was shot in black-and-white film stock. The floor plan of the house also makes geographical sense, transforming every space into a nightmarish maze not unlike Wes Craven’s unfairly forgotten “The People Under the Stairs.”

Though what Rocky is doing is criminal—and she still makes it her goal to not leave without the money they came for—Jane Levy (2013's "Evil Dead") somehow makes her worth rooting for, and the character's sincere yearning to get away with her sister is certainly identifiable. Up to being placed through the physical and emotional wringer yet again under the tutelage of Alvarez, Levy is sensational, riding the line of hard-edged delinquent and root-worthy survivor, and she has an ideal face for a horror movie. (Without getting deep into spoiler territory with the events of the third act, there is one sloppy discrepancy involving Rocky's jeans being magically sewn up after they have been sliced open; it's a surprise the filmmakers didn't catch this continuity gaffe during the editing process.) Of the other two burglars, Daniel Zovatto (2015’s “It Follows”) is convincingly sleazy as a cornrowed punk named Money, who’s obviously a goner, and Dylan Minnette (2015’s “Goosebumps”) imbues decency and intelligence as Alex, who pines for Rocky. And then there’s Stephen Lang, a character actor who makes for an imposing human monster without saying much when his muscular frame and ready-to-kill instincts can do all the talking.

Set in a desolate Detroit neighborhood where nothing can be heard or seen, “Don’t Breathe” doesn’t require much suspension of disbelief and terrifyingly so. If there are any reservations that could potentially break the film’s otherwise dread-filled spell but still do not, it is in how far director Alvarez is willing to go to make his audience gasp and squirm. Nevertheless, the secret revealed about The Blind Man is unthinkably icky, sick and shocking in a way that will certainly make one’s jaw drop. Cut down to the essentials, “Don’t Breathe” is a fierce, breathlessly harrowing masterclass in terror and suspense. Be prepared to get stressed out and leave the theater exhausted.

Grade: A -