In 2016, Don’t Breathe felt like a breath of fresh air, which is ironic, given the title. Fede Alvarez has impressed prior with the Evil Dead remake, successfully reimagining a classic film in ways others had failed at. Audiences showed up for Evil Dead, but, far more showed up for his new original film.
I have heard both arguments for and against the film. Some liked its tense atmosphere and the way it flipped the genre on its head, and others were on the fence about some of its more peculiar, shall we say, “out there” decisions. I, for one, mostly liked the film, and would call it a film worthy of any great horror director’s sophomore creation. One thing I didn’t think, however, was that it needed a sequel.
Don’t Breathe could have wrapped in neat-and-tidy fashion, had they not shoehorned an unnecessary “reveal” at the end, showing our blind antagonist alive and well. It is one of the pitfalls of the genre, however. So many horror films can’t resist the twitching hand in the morgue, or the killer’s eyes opening at the very last second. It’s a business in the end, and Don’t Breathe did good business.
Don’t Breathe 2 sees Rodo Sayagues in his directorial debut, a name that has been attached to most of Fede’s films, including both Evil Dead and the original film. The film was also co-written by him with Fede as well. The film has Stephen Lang reprising his role as Norman Nordstrom (“The Blind Man”) with Brendan Sexton III and Madelyn Grace also involved.
The film sees Mr. Nordstrom and his adopted daughter Phoenix living in the suburbs of Detroit, set eight years after the original film. The story goes that Phoenix’s mother died in a housefire, leaving Norman to assume parental duties on her behalf.
No doubt, that sentence sticks out like a wooden plank in Scooby Doo that’s mysteriously a different color than the rest of them. And no doubt, a lot of the film hinges on that sentence and its ramifications, but not necessarily in the way you would expect. Norman now has a daughter again, but, this time, he wants things to work out differently. He is far more protective over her, keeping her isolated inside her house and shielded from the world, much to her chagrin. Everything changes when events begin to repeat themselves – a group breaks into his house, and it is up to him to defend it.
I was interested in Don’t Breathe 2, in part, because I was curious about how different they would go with it. Little snippets the director spoon fed us in interviews and reports all made it appear like Norman’s character would become a sympathetic antihero and that things would go in a very different direction. I was curious of what that would look like. We’ve seen a lot of antiheroes in the modern-era, and so, it is not out of the question, per se. But The Blind Man did a lot in Don’t Breathe. There’s a lot of baggage to unload. You’ve got the antihero aspect down, but making me sympathetic for a kidnapper and rapist is a lot to ask for.
The film does what it can, and may even succeed in its intent on some level. That in mind, it never can fully redeem the character and any implication the film tries to make to the contrary feels self-indulgent and unearned in my opinion. This isn’t because I am so deeply offended by his actions of the last film. I mean, I am. Don’t kidnap / inseminate other people. That’s very rude. But, any redemption for something of the caliber has to come with an asterisk. It’s a tightrope you have to walk, and, in this film, it makes the character’s resolution feels sentimental, hokey, and, again, unearned. The rest of his portrayal, however, I enjoyed a fair amount. Stephen Lang plays the hardened, grizzled former Navy Seal well, capturing his heartache and his grief, whereas Madelyn Grace captures a little girl on the outside of the world looking in, longing for what she has been kept from.
I think the film succeeds best at the smaller, redeemable qualities of Norman. I am fully behind adding layers and shades to a character, as I think that’s something often missed in a lot of mainstream fare. For instance, the scenes which see Norman show his connection with animals, particular his dog, and another dog shown later in the film. That makes you go, “oh, he’s a killer and a rapist, but he loves dogs.” You know, … like Hitler. And then, of course, there is his motivation. The backstory of why he does what he does and how his background in the army and the loss of his daughter impacted him. This way, you’re not really telling the audience to love him, but to understand he is complicated and very flawed, and while that doesn’t make him good, that does make him human.
The antagonists of this film leave a lot to be desired. I can’t exactly go into too deep detail about them without spoiling the film, but their backstory and motivations are the most cartoony and sleazy bad guy trope-y I’ve seen in a while. Have you ever seen a horror film and the child is badly bullied? Have you noticed how over-the-top and ridiculous some of them are, lacking any nuance or shades of gray? This is the adult form of that. These are supervillain, puppy-kicking baddies cranked to eleven, and it is difficult not to snicker at it.
I appreciate a lot of this film. It isn’t a bad film, really. The novelty of “The Blind Man” wreaking havoc has been lost, and, really, this film turns that concept on its head (which, in itself, was a concept turned on its head), and sees Norman more on the defensive, which is unique, but takes a lot of what made the original film succeed. The cinematography is a high-standard, and Lang really does have an imposing presence about him, but too much of it doesn’t come together in a way that feels plausible or sensible.
This film struggles to justify itself, and while I do think there was a central idea here that could’ve worked and worked well, I think it leans too heavily into the goofier, pulpier aspects of the original film. It won’t be remembered as one of the worst sequels ever made, and, in fact, in that respect, maybe it’s deserving of some praise, but mere mention of it, for most, will likely be followed up with – “There was a Don’t Breathe 2”?