What if Rutger Hauer’s relatively absurd, visually-impaired martial arts badass from Blind Fury was besieged by a home invasion in his reclusive Early Bird Special years? The answer is — to an extent — Don’t Breathe, a thriller that skews a little more toward The Collector than David Fincher’s underrated Panic Room. The latest effort from director Fede Alvarez (the Evil Dead remake) is a relentlessly intense cat-and-mouse game with a couple of hard lefts thrown into its twisted domestic labyrinth. It’s a nasty little piece of work that needs to be a bit more lean and slightly less mean.

Jane Levy reunites with her Evil Dead director for his sophomore effort, which cobbles together familiar elements and ratchets up the tension for fairly relentless thriller. Levy plays Rocky, one in a trio of amateur burglars who think they’ve found the perfect score. For her, it’s the chance to escape a punishing home life, and with the aid of her crooked boyfriend (Daniel Zovatto) and the white bread boy who hopelessly pines for her (Dylan Minnette), Rocky agrees to their biggest heist yet.

Their target is an older, visually impaired veteran who became a recluse when his daughter was tragically killed in a hit-and-run, leaving him with a hefty six-figure payday from the perpetrator’s wealthy family. Played by a very committed Stephen Lang, the unnamed man is more formidable and deviously cunning than assumed, as if these young 20-somethings have never seen an episode of Daredevil, or watched any other film featuring a visually impaired person, ever.

Don’t Breathe doesn’t just elicit comparisons, it invites them, from Lang as a battle-worn veteran with near-mystical heightened senses (Blind Fury) to Levy’s positioning as a action thriller survivalist crawling through air ducts (Die Hard) and cringing away from a vicious Rottweiler (Aliens). Alvarez delivers a technically impressive and assured sophomore feature, with long takes and tracking shots that reveal additional dangers with each (literal and figurative) twist and turn. It’s almost like watching a film directed by Wes Anderson’s evil doppelgänger. A basement scene in which Lang turns out the lights to gain the upper hand on his would-be robbers is perhaps the most technically accomplished and engaging, transforming the night vision of found footage into something elegant and immersive — and far more intense.

But for all its technical proficiency, Don’t Breathe suffers from some of the same flaws as its predecessor. Evil Dead was entertaining enough and intense enough, and it was certainly gruesome enough, but the characters were only fleetingly established with half-baked backgrounds to conveniently explain away a narrative set-up: they’re at a cabin in the woods because Jane Levy is kicking her drug addiction, and that should be a more potent and affecting driving force than mere plot device. Levy’s character in Don’t Breathe is a little more empathetic — or at least more empathetic than her male counterparts, whose identities are basically Street Thug and Bored Suburban Romeo.

To be fair, Don’t Breathe is Levy’s film to carry and she does so very well, but her cohorts feel arbitrary and appear to exist only for narrative propulsion and convenience. The bigger issue is Alvarez’s seeming inability to discern between delightful, visceral mischief and the sort of nastiness that’s just unpleasant to watch. There are a few instances where Alvarez and co-writer Rodo Sayagues engineer shocking moments that edge beyond the bounds of enjoyable into downright discomfort, saved at the last second by the grace of their will, much to the viewer’s relief.

When Alvarez brought Evil Dead to SXSW three years ago, the “tree rape” sequence (an homage to Sam Raimi’s original film) elicited rapturous cheers and applause, making the scene all the more uncomfortable to watch. Perhaps audience members were too primitively excited for the remake to faithfully replicate its predecessor without considering exactly what it was they were watching. Maybe.

There is a scene in Don’t Breathe that inspires similarly enthusiastic reactions from the audience, with the same mixture of disgust and giddy disbelief; a reaction that adds to the general unpleasant feeling that inspires one’s body to instinctively try to fold in on itself. It’s hard to discern if this is a failure on the part of Alvarez to convey tone and intent properly, or on the part of the audience — particularly one made up of eager genre fans at a film festival.

These brief moments of unpleasantry aside, Alvarez has crafted an intense, relentless and confident thriller that only occasionally fails: like when it tries to indulge traditional narrative convention with limp character building; or when the stakes are raised to an unthinkably repulsive level, dangling Levy precariously over some grotesque ledge before yanking her away at the last moment. In this unrelenting game of cat and mouse, you begin to wonder who the cat really is — is it Lang’s blind and almost inconceivably cunning character, or is it Alvarez himself?


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