The cadre of millennials in Fede Alvarez’s Don’t Breathe will have you believe that Detroit would be a terrible place to die. With its abandoned, boarded-up, and graffiti-strewn homes, the unkempt wilderness of the once mighty metropolis blurs the line of where a third-world city begins and ends. But it’s the optimal setting for a horror film, one where the utterance of “Detroit” prompts your memory’s search engine to generate images of doom-laden isolation and despair – of a failed dream and its crushing, seemingly everlasting, consequence.
Raymond Chandler once wrote that the first five letters of the alphabet are M-O-N-E-Y; well, the first five scenes of Don’t Breathe aims at the same sentiment. It’s where we find Rocky (Jane Levy), Alex (Dylan Minnette), and if it blunt enough, Money (Daniel Zovatto), robbing a single-family home. But pawning off hot Rolexes hardly generates the cash flow the team is looking for – particularly for Rocky, whose grand ambition to leave the trailer house of her abusive mother for California. So they aim for a lucrative, though more dangerous target: a retired and blind Gulf War veteran (Stephen Lang) who made headlines for accepting a hefty settlement following the death of his daughter.
Alvarez and cowriter Rodo Sayagues lay a framework whereby the lines of ethics are distorted, as your allegiance to either the trio of millennial burglars or our Blind Man are tested with each passing scene. This is a particularly interesting methodology in setting up a horror film, as acts of violence seem especially horrifying when the moral compass of the film points to something ambiguous and imprecise. Much of it has to do with Lang’s performance, along with how Alvarez very carefully decides to put him in close-up: the blurry pupils of his eyes possess a startling vacancy that makes him both sympathetic and genuinely frightening.
There are some notable formal flourishes that Alvarez exercises that are immediately more impressive than what I’ve seen from some mainstream horror films. For one, like any good filmmaker, Alvarez establishes the geography of the Blind Man’s home clearly and with a kind of gleeful omnipotence that cues the audience to summon a little more attention. There’s an active disinterest in seeing Rocky, Alex, and Money plunder through the household in search of the Blind Man’s fortune, mainly because we’ve already seen that scene earlier in the film. So instead, Alvarez opts to explore the Blind Man’s home, noting the etched markings along the walls used as navigation, the heavy-duty locks, and the variety of tools at the his disposal. And the coup de grâce, as it were, involves a scene shot in the dark using low-light cameras, a corkscrew sequence that’s as much a visual delight as it is an aural wonder.
Such sophistication gets muddled in a film that eventually stumbles under the weight of its narrative, in a third-act that devolves into a series of false endings compounded with skull-clutching plotting. You could argue that this is a symptom of the genre, but recent horror films have avoided this kind of concession of, well, old-fashioned logic, by embracing ambiguity without sacrificing coherence (such as David Robert Mitchell’s It Follows or Robert Eggers’ The Witch). But as the tightness of Alvarez’s craft escapes the confines of the Blind Man’s interior and spills onto the streets of Detroit, you’re brought back to that initial feeling about how terrible a place the city has become: where each ramshackle home serves as a tombstone. Despite the problems that surface so prominently during the picture’s final act, this becomes a much richer ethnographic survey on what happens when a city fails. And as that monster chases you down those vacant city blocks, it’s not so much that it’s a terrible place to die, but rather – where’s a good one? And ideally, it’d be somewhere that hasn’t been abandoned and just as important: not alone.