It’s hard to watch Don’t Breathe and not immediately draw comparisons to The People Under the Stairs. By the time a drooling rottweiler pursues burglar Rocky (Jane Levy) into the claustrophobic spaces between the walls of its owner’s home, it’s clear Wes Craven’s film was a major signpost for Fede Alvarez’s. Both are home invasion thrillers centered on the invaders’ economic desperation (and it’s three in both films); the invaded are psychopaths, their homes fortified deathtraps guarding a horrible secret in the basement, trapping anyone who comes looking. There’s a girl locked away, idol and fetish-object for the home owner.
The imagery is certainly there, but Alvarez approaches it more obliquely. People is a fairy tale, a black child taking on Reaganomics–in the form of two white, incestuous, cannibalistic slumlords–and winning. Craven’s own They Live. Don’t Breathe is nowhere near as neat. Rocky, like People‘s protagonist Fool, wants a quick windfall to get her and her loved ones out of impoverished living, but she’s so laser-focused on the goal she appears cutthroat and manipulative (also, for her, “loved ones” primarily means her younger sister, with their mother a drunken, abusive oaf who needs to be escaped from). She runs with her juggalo boyfriend Money (Daniel Zovatto) and bland, wannabe-paramour Alex (Dylan Minnette), burgling suburban Detroit homes serviced by Alex’s dad’s security company. When they catch word of a blind old hermit (Stephen Lang) sitting on over six figures, in an otherwise abandoned neighborhood, the opportunity is too good. What they don’t count on is the Blind Man being an Iraq war vet, driven mad by the death of his daughter. His depravity is unveiled in stages. During the break-in–where Alvarez guides us through the house with smooth tracking shots, foreshadowing the geography of the ensuing chaos down hallways, into rooms and even the spaces between walls–the Blind Man is shown sleeping while listening to a video of his daughter, aligning sympathy. His murder and terrorizing is first seen as an understandable response to the sudden intrusion of his sanctum.
Then the girl is discovered. And that she is the one who accidentally killed the Blind Man’s daughter. From there, context gradually shifts until he is shown as truly monstrous (Alvarez played a similar game in his Evil Dead remake, shifting audience allegiances to leave us guessing who to root for).
Lang’s frame complements this portrayal: rippling, puffy musculature, he prowls as he feels his way through the house, checking for markers. The Blind Man responded to his battlefield handicap with a strict regiment and discipline, mechanizing his existence. He handles the death of a loved one similarly, taking those deemed responsible by force and attempting to (artificially) replace the loss. Old Testament-style, post-9/11 bloodlust sexualized, allowed to operate unimpeded by a socially and economically declining America eager to sweep horrifying reality under the rug. Pitting this against Rocky’s desire for escape makes the evil at the heart of the story abstract yet all too real. It can’t be killed, because it’s everywhere. Don’t Breathe isn’t a fairy tale, but a nasty, hopeless exploitation flick.