In a scene near the beginning of Don't Breathe, our three teenage antiheroes are sitting in a car, casing the next house they're going to rob. It's owned by a recluse who won a large settlement after his daughter was killed by a wealthy drunk driver, and the presumption is the money is in his house, which is the only occupied residence in a completely desolate and crumbling Detroit neighborhood. The recluse is also a war veteran, and blind. As they're watching, the blind man walks out of this house to take his giant Rottweiler for a walk.
Smart robbers would take that opportunity — the one time they know the guy isn't home — to enter and rob the house. Instead, the teenager named Money (Daniel Zovatto) says, "Let's do it tonight."
For all its twists, masterful suspense, and flipping of genre conventions, Don't Breathe still deals with horror movie characters, and a horror movie just can't get very far unless its characters do stupid things like deciding to rob a house when they're positive the homeowner is actually in it.
Which isn't to say these kids don't have a plan. Nice guy Zack (Dylan Minnette) has a father who works for a security company, and thus has easy access to house keys and security codes; Rocky (Janey Levy) is handy because she's a tiny girl who can fit through small spaces; and Money? Well, he's the tattooed bad boy who brings a gun to a robbery, thus giving a homeowner perfectly legal recourse to shoot them all in self defense. Whoops!
The movie tests the audience's alliances well at the beginning. You can kind of side with the kids because they're stuck in Detroit, and, at least in the case of Rocky, have terrible (to the point of cliché) home lives. They just want one more score so they can get out of Michigan and start over in California! On the other hand, they're robbing a blind war veteran who lost his only child to a tragedy!
Director Fede Alvarez, probably best known for his 2013 remake of The Evil Dead (Sam Raimi also returns as producer), steps back from the ultra gore of that film, sticking primarily with pure suspense. There's a great scene when the kids first enter the house that feels like an endless take, as the camera follows them in and out of rooms, and up and down stairs; it's a great way to ground the audience in what will be the movie's primary setting.
Stephen Lang, as the nameless Blind Man, is genius casting. At first he appears pretty feeble he's got gray hair and stubble, and those ghostly, milky eyes. But then, as he's stumbling around in the dark, you notice this old guy is ripped...as...hell! (Seriously. Stephen Lang is 64 years old and is in better shape than either of the younger guys in the movie.)
While Alvarez doesn't completely avoid the genre's love for loud jump scares (they usually happen in the form of that aforementioned Rottweiler), I did appreciate how much of the film's suspense relied on quiet and darkness. The need for both the intruders and the Blind Man to remain totally quiet to avoid detection means a lot of the film's biggest scares come from the Blind Man suddenly appearing in the background, thiiiiiiis close to one of the kids, neither of them aware of the other's proximity.
Don't Breathe isn't perfect. It has one too many endings and a scene that probably goes too far into the realm of the disgusting. (I still haven't decided if I hated that moment, or appreciated its audacity). But those are small criticisms for a movie that made me hold my breath more than once, and managed to take suspense to heights most modern horror movies don't even bother with anymore.