When the director Fede Alvarez’s harrowing new action thriller premiered earlier this year at the South by Southwest Film Festival, it was still untitled — until just a few days later, after its initial screenings, when Screen Gems and Ghost House Pictures announced that the movie would be called “Don’t Breathe.” At the time I wondered if the use of the imperative might be a veiled reference to “Wait Until Dark,” that vintage 1967 chiller starring Audrey Hepburn as a not-so-helpless blind woman defending herself and her apartment against a murderous thug, memorably played by Alan Arkin in dead-eyed shades.
At the risk of disobeying the title’s order and devolving into my own state of critical hyperventilation, I am pleased to report that “Don’t Breathe” is basically “Wait Until Dark” on steroids — a devious and demonstrative piece of home-invasion mischief that also leans heavily, and ingeniously, on blindness as a crucial plot device. From there, however, the two movies more or less part company. The violence here is far more graphic and relentless, the moral stakes a bit trickier to parse. Let’s just say that by the time the lights go out in “Don’t Breathe,” you will almost certainly be rooting for — and squirming alongside — the young intruders who find themselves plunged into total, disorienting darkness.
This is due more to the homicidal severity of their circumstances than to anything especially interesting about the characters themselves. They are, initially, an unsympathetic and even obnoxious bunch, a trio of resourceful young crooks trying to burgle their way to a better future amid the economic ruin of Detroit. That undercurrent of desperation gives “Don’t Breathe” a measure of topical heft (as well as the faintest kinship with David Mackenzie’s richer, more contemplative crime drama “Hell or High Water,” also now in theaters).
They are grievously mistaken, to say the least, which becomes clear the moment we get a look at the veteran, with his ripped muscles, his face lined with war scars, his eyes as blank as those of a man possessed. Played with terrifying authority by Stephen Lang, suggesting a putrefaction of the hot-headed military-man caricature he gave us in “Avatar,” he quickly intuits the presence of unwanted guests and proceeds to stalk every room and corridor with gun at the ready, hearing and sniffing out his prey as astutely as the vicious Rottweiler he keeps nearby.
It’s easy enough to sympathize with a man who fights back against the young punks trying to (ahem) rob him blind. But the pleasure of seeing the tables turned lasts only a moment, as Alvarez and his co-writer, Rodo Sayagues, open the first of several narrative trapdoors; suffice to say that what the blind man keeps locked in his safe is just a warm-up for what’s hidden away in the basement. The revelations at the heart of “Don’t Breathe” are lurid and ludicrous in the extreme, but they’re also almost incidental — a quick, resourceful means of sustaining a lethal game of cat-and-mouse between predator and prey, and between filmmaker and audience.
It’s a game that the Uruguayan-born Alvarez, who directed a slick, gory 2013 remake of Sam Raimi’s classic “Evil Dead,” plays with devious skill for 88 lean, propulsive minutes. He’s a master at orchestrating tension in close quarters, at painting his characters into a corner one minute and dangling them out a window the next. Throughout the movie he orchestrates the sort of gliding camera movements that can turn a two-story house into a labyrinth of lethal mayhem, and he invests even the quietest sounds — the creak of a floorboard, a terrified whisper in the dark — with the looming threat of disaster.
Which is not to suggest that “Don’t Breathe” is a silent film, by any means. By the end it has become a veritable symphony of screams and shattered glass, noises that are soon joined by the sound of gunfire, the bark of that damned Rottweiler and, very likely, the giggly exhalations of an audience’s collective release.
MPAA rating: R, for terror, violence, disturbing content and language including sexual references
Running time: 1 hour, 28 minutes
Playing: In general release