Three teenagers, Rocky (Jane Levy), Alex (Dylan Minnette) and Money (Daniel Zovatto) all have dreams of escaping the impoverished suburbs of Detroit, Michigan to live in sunny California. They need money and their next target might be the chance they were waiting for. Their target is a blind man (Stephen Lang) who lives in an empty neighbourhood and just so happens to have hundreds of thousands of dollars in his house. An easy task, surely? But things quickly spiral out of control.
Blindness and deafness have often been part of the horror genre, films like Audrey Hepburn's Wait Until Dark and the Spanish film Julia's Eyes featured blind protagonists whilst Mike Flanagan's Hush featured a deaf protagonist being terrorised by a home invader. Whilst they have frequently been the victim, because their lack of sight or hearing puts them at a disadvantage, they're not often the antagonist but in the case of Fede Alvarez's Don't Breathe the film’s antagonist is blind but not at a disadvantage in his fight against the burglars breaking into his house.
As Stephan Lang's veteran is blind his main source of gathering his surroundings is touch and sound, and so it's suitable that the sound design is superb. Every creek of the floorboards or door hinges, every shuffling step and every gasp for air is magnified to what feels like 100 times its normal decibel level. This is where the film derives much of its tension from, despite the veteran’s blindness, he is not at a disadvantage and the robbers must keep absolutely still whenever he is in the same room. The best sequence is when the film is similar to Silence of the Lambs where both the robbers and victim find that the tables have turned as they are all unable to see beyond the tip of their nose.
The film is often so tense that the audience dare not breathe themselves, much of this is down to Fede Alvarez's work behind the camera (there's a terrific tracking shot taking in much of the house) rather than sympathetic characters. One the film's main issues is that writers Fede Alarez and Rodo Sayagues fail to make their unsympathetic characters sympathetic. Whilst their desperate plight opens up the debate about the desperate situation the marginalised in Detroit find themselves it's still very hard to justify robbing a grieving, blind man blind of all his money. That said, however, both Rocky and Alex do have enough good inside them to ensure that you’re somewhat invested in their bid for survival. On the other hand, Money is just a dick and his survival isn’t of any concern to the audience.
This leads me onto another issue where the film tries to justify the trio of robbers' actions by having the blind veteran have some dark secret. When this secret is discovered it does present the Blind Man as the villain of the piece but doesn’t make the character’s actions any more justified. Still, Stephen Lang's performance as The Blind Man is deeply menacing and imposing, his physical structure and special set of skills makes him a highly dangerous individual despite his apparent disability. The performances of the trio of robbers are serviceable and they are not to blame for the unsympathetic characters.
The film is supremely well made but unsympathetic characters are the film's biggest road block.