I have never been to Detroit, but its cinematic portrayal makes me want to keep my distance. The few movies that do get made about it are invariably about characters trying to leave it at all costs. And when those characters are willing to risk their morals, freedom and their very lives just to escape, you know it must be a bad place.
Welcome to Don't Breathe, the latest example of Detroit's leavability at the movies. Three rudderless twenty-somethings dream of abandoning their dead-end lives for the halcyon promise of California, where there are at least beaches and sunshine (get ready for the expensive housing, though, kids!). Rocky (Jane Levy) has a little sister whom she wants to protect from their alcoholic, deadbeat mother. Alex (Dylan Minnette) has his blue-collar dad to keep him back, but he sees the writing on the wall about where his life might be going. Plus, he's got a big crush on Rocky. Money (Daniel Zavatto)... well, he's priced as marked.
To gather the scratch to ship out to Cali, the three break into people's homes and steal their stuff. Alex's dad works for a home security company and therefore possesses backup keys to many houses in suburban Detroit, many of which contain fence-able electronics and jewelry (to keep the police out of their hair, the trio never steals cash and belongings exceeding $10,000 in value). Money gets wind of a lead that will allow him and his friends never to B&E again: a blind Gulf War vet (Stephen Lang) lives in a desolate neighborhood with only a dog to keep him company. His house doesn't look like much, but he's sitting on a pile of dough he collected from a settlement involving the death of his daughter at the hands of a rich and distracted teenaged driver. With dollar signs in their eyes and more than a little apprehension, Rocky, Alex and Money set out to clean the pensioner out. After all, no one's a saint and so everyone's a mark.
Don't Breathe is directed by Fede Alvarez who, like David Lowery did with Pete's Dragon, brought energy and verve to a remake no one asked for, 2013's Evil Dead. He returns with an original story and proves that he's here to stay: Don't Breathe may not be the most original thriller to come along--it's the bastard child of Wait Until Dark and Panic Room--but Alvarez has shown himself to be a master craftsman of the genre, a genre director who actually cares about framing, narrative structure and upending your expectations. He and co-screenwriter, Rodo Sayagues, are unafraid to stare into the abyss, delving into some truly dark and disturbing subject matter that makes you constantly question where your sympathies lie. If Don't Breathe manages not to be the most tense theater-going experience of the year, then I'm afraid for my blood pressure.
Alvarez seems like he's working up to something big and genuinely meaningful. By foregrounding the characters so well in economic uncertainty and desperation, Alvarez seems to be tapping into the fears young Americans have about their futures. Don't Breathe, for all its effectiveness as a thriller, nevertheless feels like a warm-up to a larger thematic expression. And if Alvarez keeps making movies as profitable as this one (it's tripled its budget in box office returns, so far), we just may get to see that promise come to light. Until then, Don't Breathe will more than suffice.