"A man can do anything when he realizes there is no God." — The Blind Man (Stephen Lang)
I set out to see Southside With You, a tale chronicling the first date of President Barrack Obama and his future wife, Michelle, but that option wasn't attractive to teen companions who wondered when the zombies or serial killers would show up. They wanted to see a horror movie instead, so we went instead to Don't Breathe.
But surprise: Don't Breathe isn't a horror movie, despite the fact that there are a couple of horrifying scenes. It's what I would classify as a suspense thriller, as 95 percent of it consists of people trying their best to do absolutely nothing, including, as the title exhorts, not even breathing. It might seem like a film dedicated to inactivity, with likely less than 12 minutes of dialogue in its 128-minute runtime, wouldn't be very exciting, but I'm here to tell you that it is, excruciatingly so, and in some ways elicits similar reactions as this year's earlier The Green Room.
Director/co-writer Fede Alvarez's proposition is exquisite simplicity. Three teen burglars — played by Jane Levy, Dylan Minette and Daniel Zovatto — break into the home of a blind senior (Stephen Lang) whom they suspect of hoarding a cash reserve somewhere in his house. After all, what problem can a sightless old man be? That's a question the teens should have asked themselves more seriously long before they arrive in his barren Detroit neighborhood, as they discover that it is not the blind old man who is in danger. Yes, the plot has a bit more depth than that, and there are one or two unexpected twists that I absolutely didn't see coming. Levy's character has the most development, as the brief dialogue mostly explains to us her motivation for burglary, and in that sense, Don't Breathe does resemble a horror movie, as, in a convention followed by virtually every thriller since John Carpenter's Halloween, the film's events are seen through the eyes of a female protagonist. Yet, more so than in many other films, events dictate that, dramatically, the central character must be a girl. I'll let you discover why, with a caveat: The explanation delves into an extremely dark realm, without necessarily being graphic.
Alvarez layers his film with strong audio design, at once reflecting that the blind man's sense of hearing is his primary window on the world, but which also generates agonizing suspense by long stretches of silence, or near silence. If the teens make a sound, he will know where they are. At one point, the teens are immersed in complete darkness, and Alvarez employs a visual technique and style I'm not sure I've seen utilized previously, and which I'm not entirely certain I like, but at least it's different.
What I do like is the broader parable tacitly suggested in the plot, of a younger generation perfectly at ease in absconding with an older generation's livelihood — or, perhaps more accurately, subsistence — possibly an allusion to things like modification or privatization of Social Security. For a time during the film, even though Alvarez has maneuvered us into seeing things from Levy's character's perspective, you can't help but cheer the blind man as he defends himself and his home, perhaps also a parable for the younger generation failing to understand just how resourceful the older generation can be in protecting itself, in their ultimate realization that it's not an innocent or helpless senior they've chosen to victimize.