Above illustration of the veteran in “Don’t Breathe” by Auryana Rodriguez.
By Nancy Chan
Fede Alvarez’s “Don’t Breathe” unfolds in adept twists designed to leave viewers short of breath, despite its simple premise: three young burglars ransack one final victim’s home for his settlement sum.
Their intended victim: a blind, unnamed Gulf War veteran and recluse (played by Stephen Lang) with three hundred thousand in cash after losing his daughter to an automobile accident. His vigilant and jump scare-provoking Rottweiler may well be the greater threat.
Cornrowed, wannabe gangster Money (Daniel Zovatto) receives the initial tip-off about the veteran. Money’s motivation is as obvious as the dollar sign tattooed on his neck.
Rocky (Jane Levy), Money’s girlfriend, sports an incomplete ladybug wrist tattoo and sets her sights on Californian freedom. She has a kid sister named Diddy, whose pouty comments and dreams of being a surfer reflect an innocence removed from their harsher reality in Detroit.
It becomes clear Diddy is Rocky’s most valued person—much like how the real life P. Diddy is the world’s wealthiest rapper—and for the third teenager, Alex (Dylan Minnette), Rocky’s happiness is his happiness. A security guard’s son, he provides the key codes, gadgets and legal knowledge necessary for the trio to break into houses.
Although Alex knows stealing anything valued over 10 thousand will land them in prison or worse, all bets are off for their grandest heist. Rocky sets things in motion by kicking through a bathroom window and deactivating the veteran’s electronic security system.
Once inside, the film’s colors or lack thereof create palpable menace. The veteran’s house, lit by lamplight and older overhead fixtures, turns walls sickly green and light sources stark yellow.
Shadows everywhere, along with the surprising appearance of tar, add requisite shades of black. Darker reds come from blood, though it’s not gratuitous; the real terror lives inside the veteran’s basement.
Cinematically, the camera often pans in and out to suffocating effect—and for brilliant foreshadowing. One zoom-in focuses on a tool shed, complete with hammers, shovels and garden shears.
Another is for Rocky’s shoes, a pivotal pair of proof for the veteran’s confirmation of intruders. The veteran certainly doesn’t see anything; in a surreal and chilling scene, he picks one platform sneaker up and sniffs it, glazed eyes wide open.
He’s the opposite of helpless. To the despair and shock of Money, Rocky and Alex, the veteran’s sinewy build is not a remainder of war experience, but a reminder of it.
Many of his close-ups are low-angle shots, giving him superior and overpowering presence. His intuition is razor-sharp, to boot.
If a window needs boarding up, he hammers away with an awareness that causes survivors to shrink in fear. He’ll snap the key embedded inside a door’s lock, then turn off the lights to turn the tables.
The scene that follows is among the movie’s most visually harrowing: everything becomes grayscale, reducing seeing eyes into black marbles and rendering the veteran’s irises into ghastly prunes.
Money’s single moment of acuity happens when he refuses to sympathize with the veteran: “Just because he’s blind doesn’t mean he’s a saint.” A saint he ain’t—some deeds must be seen to be believed, especially when one revelation arrives horribly slow à la Billy the Puppet on a tricycle.
Audiences will be kept rigid in their seats as “Don’t Breathe” reverses hunting roles and inherent tenacity keeps each person—and dog—biting back.