2016 has been a banner year for excellent horror films. Now comes Fede Alvarez’s “Don’t Breathe, ” another instant-classic horror movie, joining “Green Room,” “Lights Out” and “The Conjuring 2.” “Don’t Breathe” revolves around an ingenious concept — a team of teen burglars rob the house of a blind man who isn’t so helpless — and it taps into contemporary cultural undercurrents. The teen burglars live in the wasteland of a downtrodden Detroit; home-invasion burglary seems like the only way out for these lower-middle-class white kids.
The trio are driven by their lack of options, and as have-nots, they feel justified in stealing from the haves. But there are larger motivations at stake. Rocky (Jane Levy) is desperate for an escape from her abusive mother’s house. She’s backed up by her thuggish boyfriend Money (Daniel Zovatto) and her friend Alex (Dylan Minette), the brains of the operation, who harbors a crush on the unavailable Rocky.
It’s not long before they’re tipped off to a Gulf War veteran (Steven Lang) sitting on a large cash settlement from his daughter’s wrongful death, hit by a teen driver. It’s only after they’ve set their sights on him that they discover that the man is blind, but they proceed with the burglary. They’ve grossly underestimated their target, both in his physical capabilities and in his desire for retribution.
Alvarez and writer Rodo Sayagues have devised some incredibly suspenseful set pieces around the man’s blindness, which the teens attempt to exploit to escape the house and make off with the dough. But he has battened down the hatches on his dark, crumbling home, knows every floorboard creak and is unwilling to part with his goods or let any deed go unpunished. Alvarez masterfully uses silence and sound throughout, re-creating the sensory experience of the man.
The audience is privy to all the close brushes in tight hallways and stifled screams as the invaders attempt to hide in plain sight. We see the dilated pupils of our protagonists, bumbling sightless in a pitch-black basement, the playing field leveled to their captor. The tension never lets up, and the shocking twists in the story need to be seen to be believed.
There aren’t any good guys in “Don’t Breathe,” as victimizers become victims and back again. We align ourselves with Rocky and Alex, fighting for their lives, but there’s some empathy for the blind man, protecting his home and the dark secrets it contains.
The sight-based conceit offers the opportunity for clever suspense and scares, but it’s the realistic setting and newsworthy themes that make the horror of this film so bone-chilling. “Don’t Breathe” is terrifying because it doesn’t rely on the supernatural or fantasy. These horrors are all too real, stories that we see on the news all too regularly — grown right here in the USA.
Rated R for terror, violence, disturbing content, and language including sexual references. 1:28. Fayette Mall, Frankfort, Georgetown, Hamburg, Nicholasville, Richmond, Winchester, Woodhill.