The movies have a long history of retconning villains into more palatable characters. Darth Vader found redemption, Deckard Shaw found a family, Cruella de Vil found a love of dogs… it’s an easy way to extend the lifespan of a popular character while also giving audiences permission (or sorts) to like them. It doesn’t have to make narrative sense, necessarily, but the character needs to be someone viewers can swallow as a protagonist worth rooting for. Spoiler for 2016’s Don’t Breathe — The Blind Man (Stephen Lang) abducts, impregnates, and kills a woman and then tries doing it again before the end credits roll. Don’t Breathe 2 doesn’t rehash any of that and instead re-introduces the character as a protector, a savior, and an avenging angel you’re meant to cheer for. Good luck with that.
The Blind Man, aka Norman Nordstrom (Lang), lives a quiet life in a big house with a young daughter named Phoenix (Madelyn Grace). Her mom’s long dead, and his concern for Phoenix’s safety means he rarely lets the child out of his sight. It’s a big, bad world out there after all. When the girl is glimpsed by a sketchy dude at a rest stop (Brendan Sexton III) who follows her home, Norman and Phoenix see a quiet evening turn into a fight for their lives. Of course, given Norman’s history of violence, the home invaders are the ones in the most danger.
Don’t Breathe 2 manages some stylish flourishes and some vicious acts of violence, but the entire film has a shadow hanging over it — we know what Norman’s done with young women in the past, and the presence of a young girl in his home leaves an icky feeling over the film’s first act. Certain revelations shift those concerns a little, but the core issue remains as Norman becomes the only chance Phoenix has of surviving through the night. We’re meant to fist pump the kills that follow, but the disconnect is just too strong. As a point of reference, a better riff on the theme can be found in 1972’s The Police Connection, a film which sees a cop trying to stop a mad bomber while the only witness is a vile rapist. The man is essential to stopping an different villain, but at no point does the movie forget that he himself is a goddamn monster. Don’t Breathe 2 wants you to forget and forgive its monster.
While original director Fede Alvarez is on board here as a producer and co-writer, Don’t Breathe 2 is directed by its other co-writer, Rodo Sayagues — who also co-wrote the original film and Alvarez’s horror masterpiece Evil Dead (2013). Despite the script’s iffiness, and more on that below, Sayagues shows some more than capable chops as a filmmaker in his own right. Sure, too much of the action is shot and cropped to the point of ineffectiveness, but the film’s slower, more suspenseful beats are captured with an eye for detail and engagement. The initial invasion, sequence with several men searching the house for young Phoenix, feels almost Fincher-esque (circa Panic Room, 2002) as the camera moves silently between floors and around objects to track the various character locations and close calls. It’s a slick, dialogue-free sequence, but the high doesn’t last long.
“Enough of this silly game,” says a tough meth cook turned murderer turned human organ thief, and it’s just one of the script’s many examples of ill-fitting dialogue that feels at odds with the characters or situation at hand. Phoenix repeatedly muttering the name of a shelter for unhoused kids is another. The script is equally uneven when it comes to its characters and choices in general. After killing some thugs — and again, being a man who had no qualms about abducting and penetrating young women some years prior — an entire sequence is devoted to Norman’s efforts to avoid killing an aggressive dog. It’s an odd, but narratively necessary, turn of events, and it’s one more effort made towards humanizing this piece of shit.
For viewers left unbothered by Norman’s arc from the first film to the second, there are minor thrills to be found in Don’t Breathe 2. Most of the set-pieces feel pretty standard, but Sayagues hits viewers with some bloody beats as gunshots, knives, hammers, and more help build a body count. The film’s most effective bit involves a pretty gnarly blinding as Norman forces someone to “see what I see.” As mentioned, too much of the action is presented in a cramped shots, and while time is given to show off the carnage only the eyeball violence stands out.
It’s unclear who’ll dig Don’t Breathe 2 most. It’s a bit softer than the first and less exploitatively icky, but even if its “heroic” violence is more your speed you’re still saddled with an indefensible anti-hero. It just doesn’t work on its face, but it’s made worse by the early presence of another ex-military character in Phoenix’s life. Hernandez (Stephanie Arcila) is a smart, physically capable woman with Phoenix’s best interests at heart — a natural protagonist to fight both the thugs and Norman — but she’s gone after the first act. Poor choices all around.