Filmmaker Fede Alvarez recognizes the power of noise and silence, light and dark.
His relentless thriller “Don’t Breathe” contains stretches where the slightest sound can doom a character. Where darkness becomes an ally to some or a death sentence to others.
And it’s told from the point of view of the bad guys: a group of thieves.
Alex (Dylan Minnette) has figured out a clever way to commit robberies. He pilfers the keys and codes from his father, who works for a Detroit security company, cleans out the place and then stages a sloppier break-in. Foolproof.
His partners include Rocky (Jane Levy, star of Alvarez’s effective “Evil Dead” remake), who needs cash to escape her abusive home. The motivation of her reckless boyfriend, Money (Daniel Zovatto), is best explained by his “$” neck tattoo. Alex seems more interested in helping the pretty Rocky than profiting from these crimes. So far, his cautious approach has paid off.
The small-time trio believe they’ve found a big-time mark: a blind Gulf War veteran (Stephen Lang from “Avatar”) who received a healthy legal settlement following a family tragedy. Even though the man never leaves his house, which sits in a blighted area abandoned by neighbors, the burglars figure they can creep in and out while the old muscly guy sleeps.
“Just ’cause he’s blind doesn’t mean he’s a (expletive) saint,” Money says, justifying the deed.
That statement takes on new meaning when the heist devolves into a nightmare of their own making.
“Don’t Breathe” inverts the setup of other recent home invasion movies such as “The Purge” or “Hush,” which are typically told from a victim’s perspective. (Picture “Wait Until Dark” if Alan Arkin’s ruthless Harry Roat were the blind character. Or “Straw Dogs” as perceived by the hooligans.)
Alvarez and fellow Uruguayan co-writer Rodo Sayagues always stay ahead of their audience, introducing fresh obstacles and unpredictable twists that maximize the controlled setting. The movie opens with a wide, overhead daytime shot that reveals the same dilapidated area of Detroit as the 2014 horror hit “It Follows.” Then the surroundings slowly compress, getting quieter, darker and more claustrophobic until all the players are trapped inside a house.
Here they must navigate around padlocked doors, barred windows, narrow hallways, dusty air vents and something the owner desperately doesn’t want them to find in the basement.
What makes the film so enthralling is its sheer plausibility. The subtle Minnette (“Goosebumps”) and sassy Levy exude a rounded authenticity, despite having little backstory to draw from. At least Levy’s Rocky reveals some key details about her rough childhood that foreshadow such resilience.
But it’s Lang’s “Army vet loner” that really resonates. Sporting a white beard and faded muscle shirt, the 64-year-old actor wrings the most he can from a largely wordless role. No supernatural abilities or Daredevil-like prowess; he’s just a tough and determined foe. Or from his standpoint in this tale of terror, he’s a good guy defending his home.
Disquieting revelations in the film’s third act could turn off certain viewers. So might the realistic, chaotic violence. Yet how refreshing to see fight scenes that pivot on panicked opportunism rather than martial arts skills or mutant powers.
As far as confined thrillers go, “Don’t Breathe” remains nearly airtight.
Jon Niccum is a filmmaker, freelance writer and author of “The Worst Gig: From Psycho Fans to Stage Riots, Famous Musicians Tell All.”
Rated R. Time: 1:28.