Rocky, Alex and Money are three Detroit thieves who get their kicks by breaking into the houses of wealthy people. Money gets word about a blind veteran who won a major cash settlement following the death of his only child. Figuring he’s an easy target, the trio invades the man’s secluded home in an abandoned neighbourhood. Finding themselves trapped inside, the young intruders must fight for their lives after making a shocking discovery about their supposedly helpless victim.
“The Locked Room” is a long used cinema trope given regular airings to various degrees of success. Getting your protagonists held in some way in a confined space and picking them off one by one is an effective and efficient storytelling method. Here, writer/director Fede Alvarez fuses it with currently-in-favour jump scares to wonderful effect.
Alex’s Dad runs a home security company, handily keeping copies of clients keys in his home office. Together with unrequited crush Rocky and her unstable boyfriend Money, Alex ‘borrows’ these keys to rob the few remaining rich people left in an otherwise desolate Detroit, smashing windows and setting off the alarm only after they’ve plundered and trashed the property, all the better to maintain the illusion that it was a regular robbery. With information that a blind army vet living in an abandoned street has a potential huge score in his home, the three decide on one final big job and the chance to finally escape Detroit.
For Rocky, this is the chance to flee her scumbag, trailer-trash family and take her young sister with her. Money wants…well, money (I guess we know how he got his name) and Alex just wants Rocky. They break into the blind man’s house, use basic chemistry to drug him into a deep sleep and search for the wad of bills they hope is hidden somewhere. But our victim somehow wakes up and shows he is far more capable than they every thought possible. As one of them is killed and the remaining two desperately try to flee the house, a chilling secret is revealed that turns a regular home invasion into something far more insidious.
Most effective in moments of complete silence, with our robbers holding their breath so as not to alert the roaming veteran, Alvarez keeps the tension ramped up and manages effective methods of keeping them in a house with plenty of windows and doors. Questions about how a blind man with (presumably) heightened hearing sleeps soundly as his home is loudly invaded, why he keeps all his cash in handy bills in the closet or how his basement seems to be several times larger than the house on top barely register as you desperately hope our young thieves survive their ordeal. The twist at the halfway point is wonderfully shocking, making you realise these guys are in serious, mortal danger. And with no big name stars (at least yet; we predict big things for Levy), being clueless about who will live or not merely adds to the tension. Only a flash-forward at the beginning potentially ruins the flow, a decision that proves redundant and ill-advised.
Lang, still riding the Avatar fame-wave, is extremely effective as the blind veteran (he’s never named), those foggy, glassed-over always staring eyes providing the film’s most chilling moments. After Alvarez unwisely made a (decidedly un-groovy) remake of The Evil Dead, Don’t Breathe comes as something of a nice surprise, managing to feel fresh and new despite using every horror and jump cliché going. Some may think it a little too nasty in places, and the open ending is pretty superfluous (a quick, cheap sequel will only demean this) but at just shy of 90 minutes, this is a perfect little chiller, happily staying in the realm of the real with no ghosts nor supernatural ghouls needed to provide the scares. A very pissed off, deranged blind man is all you need.