Home invasion stories are so effective because the thought of having our personal beacon of safety violated is endlessly terrifying. Yet Don’t Breathe, from director/co-writer Fede Álvarez and co-producer Sam Raimi, spins this trope around and asks what would happen to home invaders who found their chosen victim nowhere near as vulnerable as they thought?
Norman Nordstrom (Stephen Lang) is a Gulf War veteran blinded by shrapnel. Yet, as a young trio of burglars discovers, he’s also sitting on $300,000 somewhere in his home due to a settlement after his daughter was killed in a hit and run.
So Rocky (Jane Levy), Alex (Dylan Minnette, The Open House), and Money (Daniel Zovatto) plan one last hit, thinking him an easy mark. Once inside the house and discovered, they quickly learn that Nordstrom’s blindness isn’t the handicap they thought it was, and his house is home to way more than just a cash pay-out.
Don’t Breathe steps away from Álvarez’s previous blood-soaked and supernatural approach within the Evil Dead remake. In having young, able-bodied people scramble around a locked house to escape the threat of a strong and determined defender who knows his surroundings much better than they do, Don’t Breathe squeezes the tension heartstrings taut and thrums them with a finely balanced bow.
The plot is delivered from the point of view of the invaders, and gives them enough ‘they are not that bad really’ to ensure that they do have our sympathies as things go south. Money and Rocky exploit Alex’s attraction to her in order to raid houses that his father’s security firm have installed alarm systems in, but Rocky’s need to escape from a hard home situation and Alex’s hesitancy make them a believable pair to root for amongst Money’s empathy lacking approach.
All is not as it seems in Nordstrom’s dark and secluded house, miles away from anyone who could hear what goes on inside. As the action shifts from the house proper, to the pitch-black basement, and through to even darker territory, Don’t Breathe mixes things up throughout its short run time to avoid repeating the same beats.
For the most part, this makes for edge of the seat enjoyment, although come the last twenty minutes the threat that Nordstrom poses reaches a wince-worthy disgust that arguably missteps into unnecessary shock value to pump up a finale.
The privilege of being able-bodied and healthy is something never appreciated until it is impaired or removed entirely. Any reminder that we are one accidental infection or body spasm away from having our world turned upside down is rightly terrifying.
We try not to think about it. Try not to think that it could be us. Such fears are primal. Hard coded into our genome and mentality to the point where movies can, and have, exploited any kind of disfigurement or disability in order to generate ‘otherness’ in villains. The kind of antagonists that repulse immediately, creating a self-fulfilling prophecy of evilness.
Thankfully recent years have shown greater awareness in the entertainment industry of this kind of regressive and ultimately lazy thinking. Yet skilful writing can tap into these inherent dark terrors such to not point the finger at those among us, ultimately, who have a hard enough time getting on with life as it is.
By making Nordstrom’s threat an entirely separate issue to his lack of sight, Don’t Breathe successfully uses the disability as a storytelling device rather than a reason to be fearful in of itself.
Following the 2016 successful box office and critical run of Don’t Breathe, an August 2021 sequel with reportedly less to say and more stretched ways of saying it has come and gone. Yet in its compact 90 minutes, Don’t Breathe does more to scare you than any overblown gorefest could do.
We are all one moment away from having our lives irreparably altered. Where possible, make choices to protect yourself.
Words by Mike Record