Director Fede Alvarez is certainly no stranger to the SXSW Film Festival – his ultraviolent remake of Sam Raimi’s horror classic Evil Dead played to a raucous, rabid audience here in 2013 – so it seems fitting that his heart-pounding thriller Don’t Breathe would kick off the Midnighters category at this year’s event.
Our protagonists are a trio of teens who get their kicks by breaking into local homes – courtesy of stolen security codes that Alex (Dylan Minnette) swiped from his father, who works for the alarm company – and snatching expensive items, which Money (Daniel Zovatto) hawks for significantly less than what they’re worth. But Rocky (Jane Levy) is tired of taking big risks for small rewards, and when the gang finds out that a local resident was on the receiving end of a huge settlement, they see a major score in their future.
After learning that the other homes in the neighborhood are abandoned and their target (Stephen Lang) is an aging US Army veteran that lost his eyesight in the war, it seems like the job is shaping up to be the easiest they’ve ever pulled. But the blind man is no pushover, and what should have been a quick smash-and-grab affair becomes a nightmarish game of cat and mouse as he relentlessly stalks the intruders through the home’s maze-like interior.
Don’t Breathe marks the second team-up between Alvarez and Levy, and while the actress doesn’t find herself drenched in gore this time around, the physical ordeal that she endures must have been just as taxing as their previous collaboration. But even though the teenage thieves are technically our protagonists here, it’s Lang who truly owns the film, turning in a menacing and terrifying performance as he marches from room to room in his blood-spattered white undershirt.
Evil Dead fans hoping for the same type of over-the-top carnage might be disappointed here – Alvarez has traded severed limbs and arterial sprays for a more grounded, realistic approach, and it works to great effect. Watching Lang beat one of the intruders into a mangled pulp with nothing more than his bare fists is somehow even more unsettling than the constant barrage of bloodshed in Alvarez’s previous offering.
Clocking in at a very lean 88 minutes, Don’t Breathe could easily use its own title as a description of the film’s pacing – this is about as far from a slow burn as you can get. Once the teens find themselves in the blind man’s home, Alvarez cranks the tension up to its maximum level and never takes his foot off the gas. The result is a full-speed descent into terror and suspense that will leave your pulse racing long after you’ve left the theater.