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Review: 'Don't Breathe' a tense thriller for the senses

The home invasion thriller gets a violent shift in perspective — emphasis on violent — in Fede Alvarez's new film Don't Breathe.

Break-ins remain a popular backdrop for horror films, as they're terrifying and something one's more likely to encounter than Freddy Krueger. To heighten the vulnerability of the scenario, these films sometimes deprive their characters of a sense, whether that's Audrey Hepburn's blind protagonist in Wait Until Dark or the deaf woman at the center of this year's Hush.

Those characters proved resourceful against their assailants, but they're nothing compared to the nameless blind man (Stephen Lang) who serves as both victim and villain of Don't Breathe. Imagine Wait Until Dark from the point of view of a hopelessly over-his-head Alan Arkin and crew pursued by a relentless Hepburn, and you'll have an idea.

The film follows a group of burglars that includes young mother Rocky (Jane Levy), her boyfriend Money (Daniel Zovatto) and their friend Alex (Dylan Minnette). Using the resources of Alex's father, who works in home security, they ransack houses and sell the loot.

Money gets a tip about a Gulf War veteran who lives alone and is sitting on hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash. Alex thinks the situation is too risky, but Rocky's desire to pay for a move to California, and Alex's desire for Rocky, convinces him to go through with it.

The trio feel some relief when they learn the man they're robbing is blind. But not only does this fail to make their work easier, this blind man is more than capable in defending himself.

Alvarez, who directed the better-than-expected Evil Dead remake, gets another opportunity to showcase his horror chops in a different vein. While his previous film reveled in Grand Guignol grotesquerie, this one is smaller-scale and more grounded.

Like this year's great Green Room, Don't Breathe mines much of its tension from its claustrophobic setting, with doors closed and dogs released on the intruders. (It also recalls indie horror It Follows in its desolate Detroit location.)

It's still plenty violent, as anyone who saw Alvarez's grue-filled Evil Dead might anticipate. Yet many of the movie's scariest moments come from the skillful use of silence or the increasingly limited space the characters inhabit.

The protagonists aren't developed much beyond a personality trait — Money is brash; Alex is cautious; Rocky wants a better life for her daughter. That actually works in the film's favor, however, as its spare 88-minute running length would be bogged down if they were fleshed out further. It figures all the character identification audiences need is that the burglars are as freaked out as they would be.

In fact, the film's greatest stumble comes when it gives one character an explicit motivation. Not only does it definitively decide who's right and who's wrong when part of the queasy fun was the moral middle ground, it recalls real-life horrific incidents in a way that leaves a bitter taste in the mouth. (There's also a perverse race-against-the-clock climax that's sure to be divisive.)

Beyond that, Don't Breathe is another solid genre offering from Alvarez, in an August that's unexpectedly shaping up to be this blockbuster season's strongest month. Will Hollywood take this as a sign to invest in more original films? To tweak this film's title, don't hold your breath.

Contact Jimmy Geurts at jgeurts@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3402. Follow @JimmyGeurts.

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Don't Breathe

Director: Fede Alvarez

Cast: Stephen Lang, Jane Levy, Dylan Minnette, Daniel Zovatto

Screenplay: Fede Alvarez, Rodo Sayagues

Rating: R; terror, violence, disturbing content, language including sexual references

Running time: 88 min.

Grade: B

Review: 'Don't Breathe' a tense thriller for the senses 08/24/16 [Last modified: Thursday, August 25, 2016 3:51pm]
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