The Grisly Horror Sequel 'Don't Breathe 2' Messes with Your Expectations
By putting Stephen Lang's villainous character at the center, the new installment plays a tricky narrative game.
When the slick home invasion thriller Don't Breathe arrived in theaters back in 2016, it took great pleasure in toying with audience expectations about sympathetic characters and notions of poor taste. For his follow-up to the ultra-bloody, ultra-brutal 2013 Evil Dead remake, an exercise in gory excess, filmmaker Fede Álvarez constructed a stripped-down, single-location suspense tale about a group of thieves robbing the home of a mysterious blind veteran, played with muscular menace by Avatar's Stephen Lang. What began as a tense, violent Home Alone narrative slowly transformed into a far more disturbing story of rape and revenge, one that managed to make over $150 million at the box office, the type of hefty sum that virtually demands a retread sequel.
One of the most refreshing parts of Don't Breathe 2 is that the film knows that it can't simply set up the same reversals and expect to earn the same gasps of revulsion. Instead, director Rodo Sayagues, who co-wrote the original with Álvarez, has constructed a far more elaborate narrative and populated his film with new grotesque surprises. Yes, Lang's Norman Nordstrom—also referred to in the credits as "The Blind Man"—is back and he still knows how to dismember an attacker with startling precision and an almost supernatural understanding of where they'll be at a given moment. But this time the film frames him as the protagonist from the jump and then attempts to complicate his relative moral standing with a number of grisly, bizarre twists.
For anyone who saw the first film, the image of Lang's bearded terror serving as a sweet, overprotective father to a young girl (Madelyn Grace) should be a sign of the movie's proudly perverse instincts. The old man and the girl live largely in isolation, training for a seemingly inevitable violent conflict, but she's itching to see the world and free herself from the man she calls father. Eventually, the world comes to them in the form of a group of roughnecks who descend on the Nordstroms' home, allowing Sayagues to stage a number of bravura cat-and-mouse sequences. Like the original, Don't Breathe 2 understands that there's considerable mileage you can get out of combining the gliding camera movements of David Fincher's Panic Room with the the seedy sensibility of a Rob Zombie splatter-fest. (Related: Evil Dead director Sam Raimi returns as a producer for the sequel.)
The movie struggles a bit in the second half as it moves out of Nordstrom's house and takes a series of absurd narrative swings. Still, if you like gnarly genre riffs like this, you might get a kick out of the movie's willingness to explore deranged behavior with an arched eyebrow and a knowing smirk. (At the same time, there's a cruel quality to the way the movie portrays poverty, prison, and drug addiction.) Though Lang remains a committed performer, his raspy voice and dynamic physicality providing depth to the role, Sayagues's efforts to turn the Blind Man into a John Wick-like killing machine feel forced. The same goes for a last-minute attempt to acknowledge the character's past sins. It's the wrong kind of too-muchness in a movie that clearly prides itself on always testing the limits.