“Don’t Breathe 2” is a sequel to the 2016 horror movie, which was a surprise hit. The movie follows a group of thieves who break into the house of an old woman and steal from her. When they discover that she’s blind, they take turns going in after each other to see who can get out first.
Norman Nordstrom (Stephen Lang) is a serial murderer and sexual predator who abducted a female victim after his daughter died in a car accident, impregnated her with a turkey bottle cap, and imprisoned her in his basement to conceive what he believed was his replacement child. In Fede Alvarez’s 2016 film Don’t Breathe, he’s half tragedy-plagued Gulf War veteran and part fairytale monster, and a human version of Pan’s Labyrinth’s Pale Man, who’s almost freakishly strong and fierce. He’s blind, but he utilizes his other senses to hunt down three would-be thieves who break into his house, thinking he’ll be an easy prey, only to find that he’s a terrifying adversary. Only one of the three survives the film’s conclusion, and she is on the verge of becoming Norman’s next prisoner.
Norman survives as well, although it’s disconcerting to watch him rise to the role of main man in the mediocre but amusing Don’t Breathe 2. He’s not only a cold-blooded murderer; he considers women to be unknowing human breeders in the most literal sense, justifying himself by saying, “I never forced myself on her.” He has just enough real-world ugliness to keep you from calling him an anti-hero, but he’s “not a hero on this one, not even an anti-hero,” as Alvarez pointed out on Twitter.
Norman gets the sort of child-endangerment narrative typically associated with atonement, according to Alvarez, who handed the sequel’s directorial responsibilities to his Don’t Breathe co-writer Rodo Sayagues.
The sequel to “Don’t Breathe” takes place eight years after the events of the first film, putting it in the near future. Norman kidnapped a little girl named Maddie Grace, took her home, and raised her as his own. He also named her Phoenix, which is a bit of a mouthful. Meanwhile, Shadow is the name of the Rottweiler that follows her about and guards her, and the picture becomes progressively less subtle from there. Phoenix has been pent up in their old Detroit house since she was a kid, but now that she is a tween, she yearns for a normal life, to meet new people, and to go to school. On one of her weekly field excursions to do errands with a trustworthy friend, we see why the outside world is such a frightening place.
(Also, it’s hard to tell if this is the greatest or worst time to release “Don’t Breathe 2,” a film about people who remain inside their homes all day; the fact that it’s only showing in theaters indicates that the studio is hoping you’ll be willing to leave yours.)
When a gang of bumbling tweakers, led by a sleazy Brendan Sexton III, follow Phoenix back to his hometown, we find out what they’re really up to. The film’s subsequent twists and turns vary from fascinating to ridiculous, but they change it from a fairly typical home invasion thriller into something wilder, crazier, and—at times—darkly funny. Sayagues’ controlled use of quiet, creaking doors and sluggish footsteps in the first half of the film gives way to violent, bloody action and dramatic sound design as Norman fights off and outsmarts his assailants. Grace manages to keep up with the physical demands of her role throughout, but there isn’t much more for her to do. Phoenix is always responding, whether it’s to fresh information about her real origins or the survival techniques given to her by her “father.” Meanwhile, subplots involving an organ trafficking network and a local children’s home seem jammed in.
When it comes to horror films, we almost always follow the villains rather than the survivors, which is why, when sequels or whole franchises are produced, we almost always follow the villains rather than the survivors. Regan MacNeil, Nancy Thompson, and Laurie Strode are among the survivors, although they aren’t as important as the boogeymen. The villains of the Friday the 13th, Halloween, and A Nightmare on Elm Street franchises may not be the primary protagonists in each picture, but they are the series’ trademark characters, and it may be tempting to flip them around.
Hannibal Lecter developed from a silkily frightening prison lawyer to a kind of daring carnivorous suitor between Hannibal and The Silence of the Lambs. The ruthless killing machine portrayed by Arnold Schwarzenegger in The Terminator was transformed into a devoted friend in Terminator 2. The thrill of seeing these fascinatingly frightening enemies operate against the protagonists is replaced with a similar pleasure in watching those fascinatingly horrific characteristics work against the protagonists.
They weren’t able to simply reword “Don’t Breathe.” That would be a waste of everyone’s talents and a complete waste of time. Instead, they offer Lang’s character, Norman Nordstrom, an excuse to depart the home. The final result is wackier and rougher than previously, but never as tense or tight. It’s even more difficult to cheer for him to overcome his assailants after learning about his horrific background from the previous film. Still, there’s a lot of beauty in this film, particularly an excellent, prolonged tracking shot around Norman’s home at the start of the break-in; flecks of that sort of clever choreography and camerawork may be found everywhere, but this sequence stands out. With his shock of white hair and wiry frame, Lang is always a frightening presence, creating a sense of danger with nothing more than grunts and his physical steeliness.
Don’t Breathe 2 wants you to cheer for Norman, but it also wants you to feel uneasy doing so. The original film delved into our emotions by placing us in the shoes of a group of adolescent hoodlums and giving one of them, Rocky (Jane Levy), with powerful financial motives. Then it draws us back in by revealing that their next target is a handicapped man who seems to be living alone after his family died, and then it flips us away by revealing that he’s been keeping a hostage. The sequel puts the audience’s ability to empathize with a protagonist to the ultimate test.
Norman is protective of Phoenix, yet he also smashes a shovel into the face of someone else while the girl screams for him to stop. Norman weeps over his dog and superglues someone’s mouth and nose shut, making them unable to breathe. The terrifying fun of Don’t Breathe 2 comes from seeing Norman do to the group what he did to them in Don’t Breathe, but this time with people who deserve it. If they’re worthy of it, that is. Any preconceptions about who Phoenix belongs with are shattered halfway through the movie, and then shattered again, until it becomes apparent how basic so many of the on-screen signals that a character deserves compassion are.
We adore charming murderers and enthralling monsters, but it’s always a bit easier to love them when they seem to be acting in humanity’s best interests. The greatest part about Don’t Breathe 2 is how it constantly subverts that comfort, as if forcing us to rethink our initial desire to assign hero and villain roles.