In late summer 2016, Fede Alvarez surprised the hell out of audiences with Don’t Breathe. A follow-up to the director’s excellent Evil Dead reboot, the film successfully turns the typical home invasion setup on its ear, and with a complicated trio of protagonists and a shocking villain it unleashes a series of dark twists that keep you guessing about the way things are going to turn out. It’s an intelligent, brutal, and well-made thriller that also happens to be very rewatchable – which only makes one wonder more intensely how things went so horribly wrong in the making of its disaster of a sequel.
Like its predecessor, Don’t Breathe 2 is co-written by Fede Alvarez and Rodo Sayagues (though Sayagues takes the helm this time for his directorial debut), and it’s bizarre just how badly it misinterprets what’s so great about the original. Gone are the complicated and sympathetic characters, not to mention the unique approach to subgenre, and what’s left is the expectation that we’re supposed to root for a murderer/rapist in a plot that manages to be both disappointingly basic and ludicrously stupid. It’s successfully just as hardcore as its predecessor as far as vicious violence is concerned, but by the time the third act rolls around it doesn’t inspire screams and gasps so much as it inspires embarrassed laughter.
Not bothering to make any kind of connection to the first movie, Don’t Breathe 2 begins an indeterminate amount of time after we last left blind madman Norman Nordstrom (Stephen Lang), and opens with a shot of a young girl trying to get away from a burning house. Cutting to eight years later, we learn that said young girl is named Phoenix (Madelyn Grace), and she has been unofficially adopted by Nordstrom as his new daughter to replace the one that was killed in a car accident years before. He trains her to be a survivor, having her run various tests and drills, but also forces her into a sheltered life and rarely lets her leave their house.
The movie then orchestrates another home invasion, albeit this time those doing the invading are personality-lacking thugs (Adam Young, Bobby Schofield, Rocci Williams, Christian Zagia) led by a creep named Raylan (Brendan Sexton III). Their target is Phoenix, whom they hope to capture after killing Nordstorm, and while their true motive is maintained as a mystery throughout most of the film – I have no intention of spoiling it here – it should be known that the ultimate answer is far, far dumber than anything you can imagine while reading this review.
While Stephen Lang’s Norman Nordstrom makes for a great villain, he is a terrible protagonist.
There is no arguing against the fact that Stephen Lang’s Norman Nordstrom is the greatest aspect of Don’t Breathe, but what’s so puzzling about the sequel is that it seems to totally misinterpret what could be previously appreciated about the character. In most films, the blind, elderly veteran who finds himself the victim of a break-in is a fish-in-a-barrel sympathetic individual, but all of that goes out the window when it’s revealed in the original that he is a horrible, vengeful monster who is capable of great evil. That established, it is beyond reason why Don’t Breathe 2 thinks the best course of action is to try and realign him as sympathetic and attempt to make him the person you root for in the story.
This approach may end up being functional for audiences who have either not seen the first movie or have forgotten the details of its plotting, but not for anyone else. Everyone who remembers the whole “chaining up a woman in his basement and impregnating her against her will” thing will be horrified by the genuine attempts to make you cheer for Nordstrom as though he can be imagined as a respectable guardian for Phoenix. Don’t Breathe 2 tries to re-contextualize his cruelty and ruthlessness as “badass” in the name of saving someone he cares about, but it never ceases to feel anything but gross.
Don’t Breathe 2 is lacking any real sympathetic characters, and that makes it sincerely challenging to engage with.
The issues with the misguided attempt to realign Norman Nordstrom don’t just stop there, however, as the move really poisons the entirety of Don’t Breathe 2. Not only is Nordstrom impossible to relate to as the “hero,” but that becomes a cascading issue in the movie, as there is not a single likable character to be found in the whole mess (save for Phoenix, but she is more unfortunate victim than anything else). The protagonists played by Jane Levy and Dylan Minnette in the original may be criminals, but they’re also human and relatable – the former trying to get money so that she can escape an abusive household with her sister, and the latter being deeply in love with her.
The sequel doesn’t even feature a shadow of anything like that. Seemingly in aid of trying to maintain a mystery behind the motive of the home invaders, none of them are given any kind of distinctive personalities or relationships, and instead merely exist as bodies on the screen that Nordstrom can dispose of in various bloody set pieces. What ends up happening is that you’re just watching all manners of ugliness play out on the screen, and you’re able to engage with none of it – meaning that there are zero stakes and that there is no momentum to speak of in the storytelling. Even at just 98 minutes it feels interminable.
Those exclusively looking for violence and brutality from Don’t Breathe 2 are the only ones who will leave satisfied.
Really the only aspect that remains satisfyingly consistent from Don’t Breathe to Don’t Breathe 2 is the visceral style. Rodo Sayagues does a solid job maintaining the bleak atmosphere and aesthetic of his filmmaking partner, replete with long, lingering tracking shots through stark and dark production design, and his eye is equally unflinching in its depiction of violence. The best creative energy that the movie has going is its physical horror, whether it’s Nordstrom supergluing the mouth and nostrils of one of the home invaders (a circumstance that is remedied with the help of a rusty screwdriver) or jamming a bell down a guy’s throat so that Nordstrom can hear him move around. Without any substance to surround any of it, though, these are fleeting cinematic pleasures for genre fans.
To the credit of Don’t Breathe 2, the movie doesn’t commit the cardinal sin of sequels by just being the same story as its predecessor told a different way (despite the return to the home invasion setup) – but its actual approach isn’t much better than that. It subtracts so much of what was great about the original, and makes a huge miscalculation in changing the focus, and then problems continue to compound with its paper thin characters and utterly ridiculous secret plot. If you have a desire to maintain your present appreciation of Don’t Breathe, this is definitely a film to skip.
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