Now you’ll see what he sees…again. He is “The Blind Man” aka Norman Nordstrom (Stephen Lang), a military veteran resident of Detroit who continues to deal with the grief of losing his original daughter in…monstrous ways. He has now taken in an eleven year-old daughter known as Phoenix (Madelyn Grace), whom he found after her home burned down eight years ago leaving her alone. He raises her in solitude, training her in survival skills because he knows more than anyone that the world is a dangerous place.
People always seem to want something that Norman is in possession of. This time, a new group of thugs led by Raylan (Brendan Sexton III) target the elder and his unofficially adopted offspring for a reason deeper than money. Once again, Norman will use his heightened senses to defend himself and Phoenix, and maybe find some small measure of absolution along the way.
The crux of pro wrestling matches and storylines are built around good and bad, generally speaking. So too are the average movie stories, but let’s stick with wrestling since the over-the-top and semi-exploitative nature aligns well with Don’t Breathe 2. In wrestling, the good guys are known as “babyfaces,” and the bad guys, “heels.” Most crowds typically root for the babyface, and boo the heel profusely; it is an easy story to tell when the dynamics are right. Every now and then, wrestling will throw a swerve and pair a heel against a heel, with the audience determining who they’d like to root for. These are nice mix-ups, but miss the thoroughness of a traditional story when at its peak and sometimes leave that same audience indifferent to the result. Don’t Breathe 2 is pretty much that, a follow-up to the 2016 sleeper hit positioning its popular antagonist as its lead character to mixed / interesting results.
Who is the director for what the marketing team has proclaimed “…the sequel to the best horror film in 20 years?” It is not Fede Alvarez, who does return as a co-writer (more on that later). This go-around, it is Alvarez’s first installment co-writer who adds his first directorial credit to his name in Rodo Sayagues. Immediately, that promises consistency, which is seen clearest during the first act, which sees Sayagues use a stretch of runtime to re-establish the spatial elements of Norman’s residence during the home invasion with minimal sound. It’s easily the movie’s best scene and Don’t Breathe 2 at its most thrilling. As the runtime continues, however, Don’t Breathe 2 does miss that steady tension its predecessor had in bulk. It is a similar problem that A Quiet Place Part II had as well, with the novelty lost after a good time has previously been spent in this world. Composer Roque Baños is back again, his industrial-fused score rooted around dissonant sounds and common household items, accentuating a few of the more grisly moments of the feature. Yes, Don’t Breathe 2 is gnarlier than the first, jolting intensity in a few spots and others using the upped up gore as a substitute for missing tension (Sayagues has a tendency to linger on important items before an execution), so call it a push.
How about that story…does it commit to doing the unthinkable it suggested in the trailer in turning an irredeemable Norman into a rootable antihero? Yes and no. Without watching the first Don’t Breathe, a viewer could go through the sequel and—until the end monologue—not have the worst feelings about The Blind Man, which is evidence that Sayagues and Alvarez have undoubtedly tamped down the icky parts to position him as the lead while raising the despicable aspects of those he squares off against (he doesn’t kill bloodthirsty dogs, and no one can be all that bad if they don’t kill a rabid dog!).
Still, for those who have seen the first, it’s hard to get that disturbing third act twist reveal out of the cranium when Norman mows down one-note gangster after another. The reviewer Keith Garlington wisely mentioned during an interaction he and I had on Twitter that he sees this as a modern grindhouse flick, and he is on to something there, with many of those films often pitting together morally grey or flat-out evil characters against each other with no social commentary beyond entertainment.
Whether positioned as a villainous protagonist or a lawful evil antagonist, Alvarez and Sayagues created one of the better horror characters of the last decade in Norman, but he was elevated by the meticulous Lang, physically imposing and frighteningly methodical; there are few paths in which Don’t Breathe is as successful with another actor. He’s great again, no shock at all. What is a shock are the stretches they make to his character. Lang is in phenomenal shape and by proxy so is Norman, but he might as well be Dom Toretto’s cousin with the abilities he has and what he’s able to survive. Grace appears in her first full-length feature, and to be honest, it shows, only when compared to so many stellar young thespian performances of late, though it gets better over time. Everyone else is too one-dimensional in look and sound to take seriously or remember.
One’s overall feelings on Don’t Breathe 2 may come down to whether it is viewed mainly as Norman’s story or Phoenix’s story. It itself is a tale of two different films that shift in perspective midway through. Undoubtedly, it is lesser than the first, but hey, at least it ain’t breathless. I’ll see myself out.
Photo credits go to collider.com, upbarta.com, and cinemablend.com.
For additional detailed thoughts on films both small and large, games, and the key moments that comprise each, check out ThatMomentIn.com.
Feel free to follow me @MrJackMarkSon.