A film review by Craig J. Koban November 1, 2021


2021, R, 90 mins.

Stephen Lang as Norman Nordstrom  /  Madelyn Grace as Phoenix  /  Bobby Schofield as Jared  /  Rocci Williams as Duke  /  Adam Young as Jim Bob  /  Christian Zagia as Raul

Directed by Rodo Sayagues  /  Written by Fede Alvarez and Sayagues

Sequels don't come any more fascinating and problematic than DON'T BREATHE 2, which comes out five long years after the first spectacularly effective nerve wracking home invasion horror thriller.  

2016's DON'T BREATHE from director Fede Alvarez - who returns here as co-writer - featured a group of selfish thieves that broke into the absolutely wrong home at the wrong time, which was occupied by an elderly former Navy SEAL that, yes, was blind, but was still a ruthlessly effective killing machine on top of being a deplorable kidnapper, murderer...and things I'm still try to process after my initial screening.  This follow-up entry continues the story of the sociopath, but makes some unexpected attempts at radically altering our perceptions of this troubled man, which helps make DON'T BREATHE 2 simmer with considerably more intrigue than I was expecting.  Having said that, rehabilitating this mostly irredeemable monster never fully rings true, not to mention that this sequel rarely has the same level of nail-biting suspense of its antecedent.   

DON'T BREATHE 2 takes place nearly ten years after the events of the first entry and re-introduces us to the aforementioned military trained serial killer Norman Nordstrom (the impeccably well cast Stephen Lang, still hauntingly and physically intimidating as an on screen presence at a ripe 69 years old).  He has now - as impossible as it seems to be initially believed - made the transition to...child protector...?  After a hellish house fire left a little girl orphaned and without a hope in the world, in swooped Norman to rescue the child and raise her as one of his own (let's just say that he avoided any type of child welfare services).  Naming her Phoenix (yeah, pretty on the nose), Norman and his faux-daughter live a life of relative happiness and security, despite the fact that he has kept her completely secluded and guarded from the outside world in every way possible.  Phoenix (a solid Madelyn Grace) respects and loves her surrogate father (despite having no knowledge of his past indiscretions) and is remarkably self-sufficient because of his "survival" training of her.   Predictably, though, Phoenix yearns to have a normal life on the outside, which Norman forbids.  He knows the kind of cretins that lurk out there...well...far too well. 

Well, in pure DON'T BREATHE-ian fashion, a gang of gnarly troublemakers make the cardinal mistake of invading the home of Norman...yet again...after following poor Phoenix home one day.  The leader of the pack is Raylan (Brendan Sexton III), who seems like a low life maniac at first, but as the film progresses he reveals himself as a person that has a deeply rooted interest in Phoenix in unexpected (and frankly preposterous) ways.  Arriving under the cover of night and launching a home invasion that he considers to be a piece of cake, Raylan and his goon squad soon learn that both Phoenix and her adopted papa are infinitely more resilient and cunning than they expected, leading to violence of the most foul kind being perpetrated on them via Norman's extraordinary abilities to read his prey's movements with a pinpoint precision that would make Daredevil blush with envy.  Obviously, Raylan and his crew have no idea that (a) Norman is an ex-SEAL and trained killer, (b) an ex-psychopath, and (c) played by Stephen Lang, who has made a career of playing psychopaths of varying degrees of insanity. 



Now, it would be easy to say that DON'T BREATHE 2 is just lazily regurgitating the premise of the first film, which, to a reasonable degree, is true.  The modestly micro-budgeted DON'T BREATHE 1 was a real miracle of a single setting thriller in the sense that it generated legitimate Hitchcockian tension from largely its claustrophobic house settings and by the overwhelmingly horrifying sensation of being trapped inside with a blind, but lethal stalker.  That film was an exercise in pure undulating terror.  To be fair, DON'T BREATHE 2 does rehash the same predicament here, but the psychological slant is far different in terms of our rooting interest and identification with the burglars and the home owner.  The first film's co-screenwriter in Rodo Sayagues (making his feature film directorial debut) steps in behind the camera this go-around, and he generally infuses an evocative sense of style and sustained unease in a handful of scenes.  The whole appeal of these films is the cat and mouse games between the hunter and the prey, and Sayagues (with the skilful work of cinematographer Pedro Luque) creates some memorable sequences of unpleasant dread, like a seriously impressive single take tracking shot that careens throughout Norman's house during the opening stages of the invasion.  As far as sequels go, DON'T BREATHE looks slick and polished throughout and has considerable directorial flair; Sayagues is not phoning it in here, folks.

Another thing that helps to elevate DON'T BREATHE 2 from being a one-note remake of the first is that, like all good sequels, it tries to carry on the story of the first by taking the characters and material in a fresh new direction.  On that basic level, this is a successful sequel.  In the last installment, Norman was pure evil that seemed utterly incapable of changing for the better, but here he's giving a pretty radical makeover that I honestly wasn't expecting going in.  I find that kind of thanklessly ambitious.  The makers here are not making Norman a squeaky clean protagonist here, mind you, and he's a doomed figure that obviously has too many skeletons in his closet to count.  Yet, he has gone from killer to protector (well, he still kills here...a lot), and you have to admire the boldness of that creative decision.  Plus, Lang is so bloody good playing damaged loose cannons in films and remains a sinful pleasure to watch in both DON'T BREATHE entries.  He's still impossibly ripped for a man pushing 70, which makes the multiple action sequences that he occupies feel fully credible, even when the story developments built up around him strain credulity to the max.  And it's sickening fun watching Norman mow his way through home invaders, only this time these crooks actually deserve their fates, unlike before.

I appreciated the ballsy nature of DON'T BREATHE 2, but in the end I simply found a majority of this film very hard to swallow, essentially on the basis of character rehabilitation.  This sequel just isn't deep enough on a screenplay level to make Norman's startling transformation feel authentically earned.  DON'T BREATHE 2 aggressively - and nonsensically at times - goes out of its way to make Norman be the good guy.  The makers here really want us to forgive and forget what he did in the past.  That's pretty damn hard.  Norman committed so many deplorable crimes (which were revealed in DON'T BREATHE 1's weak, shock value riddled third act) that I was just not convinced that he's a forgivable force of good here...and deserving of the mantle of father figure and child protector.  It's really all quite paradoxical.  I liked the daring choice to do this with the character (how many horror thrillers make the monster the savoir just two films in), but I think that it requires a smarter screenplay to make this shift work.  Not assisting matters is how said screenplay has twists and turns so preposterously loony that they make those from the 2016 film look nonchalant by comparison.  DON'T BREATHE 2 starts as a home invasion thriller and then clicks into a bizarre narrative about organ transplant trafficking that rarely feels like it organically belongs in this film at all.  The villains of this piece are so over the top and have motives that are so outlandishly far fetched that you have to wonder if they were simply airlifted in from from a whole different film altogether. 

It's almost as if Sayagues and Alvarez didn't have faith in sticking to the fundamentals of what made their previous effort work so efficiently as a scare generating machine.  I watched so much of DON'T BREATHE 1 through my fingers.  This sequel...not so much.  Sayagues has the skills of a natural filmmaker and crafts a good looking thriller here, but DON'T BREATHE 2 is disappointingly scant on genuinely frightening moments that tap into many of our collective phobias.  And maybe the novelty of the original was simply too hard to process and re-purpose here.  I don't envy the challenge of making this follow-up, and there are some absolute swing-big-for-the-fences choices here that, again, are sort of laudable, even if they unavoidably kind of derail the film from being worthy of a recommend.  DON'T BREATHE 2 is not a sluggish re-imagining, nor is it an artistically bankrupt sequel as so many other horror sequels are capable of being.  And it's far better acted by Lang and his young co-star in Grace than it has any business of being.  I want to embrace films that take risks, and this one most assuredly does, but it just emerges as a risky failure overall.   

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