Written by: Fede Álvarez and Rodo Sayagues
Directed by: Rodo Sayagues
Starring: Steven Lang, Brendan Sexton III, and Madelyn Grace
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman (@brettgallman)
”It’s not me that you need to be scared of, little girl, but the man next to you.”
When it comes to unlikely sequel prospects, there are tricky corners a follow-up has to navigate, and then there are dead ends, movies that end emphatically and definitively that you can’t imagine anyone even bothering with a sequel. Don’t Breathe certainly seemed to fall into the latter category. Sure, Fede Álvarez and Rodo Sayagues left some principal characters standing at the end, but there were no clear paths to a sequel that didn’t feel contrived or redundant. What’s more, it just felt like a self-contained one-off: we’d seen everything we ever needed to know involving these characters. But what Don't Breathe 2 supposes is maybe we didn’t, as Álvarez and Sayagues have continued the exploits of Stephen Lang’s Blind Man, and they’ve turned to a familiar tactic in doing so. Like so many horror baddies before him, Lang’s monstrous madman becomes the headliner, and even takes a step further by becoming the film’s protagonist, the first of many choices that ensure Don't Breathe 2 is nothing if not provocative. If nothing else, it comes out swinging from that apparent dead end in its unhinged attempt at justifying its own existence. I don’t know that it completely succeeds in that, but there’s something to be said about this franchise’s insistence on being so unpleasant. It leaves a bad taste in your mouth, but at least that’s something to remember it by.
Eight years after the events of the first film, The Blind Man is living in seclusion with Phoenix (Madelyn Grace), an 11-year-old girl he rescued from a house fire years ago. In that time, he’s raised her to be the daughter he’s so desperately wanted, filling her head with lies and teaching her survival techniques instead of sending her off the school and allowing her to live a normal life. Phoenix is starting to grow restless and more curious, however, creating a tension in the house that boils over when a team of disgraced military vets invade the house to abduct Phoenix. Once again, the Blind Man must defend his turf in violent fashion, though this time, the squeamish third-act surprises come at his expense when the invaders reveal their true motives in seeking out Phoenix.
I wouldn’t dare reveal those reasons since the outlandish turn of events here is just about all Don't Breathe 2 has going for it. For the most part, it doesn’t avoid the pitfalls of redundancy: here we are once again having to accept that someone has decided to break into this specific man’s house. Admittedly, it strains to come up with a decent—if not outrageous—reason, but you’re still confronted with the same deja vu of the Die Hard sequels: how can the same shit keep happening to the same guy? The big problem here, however, is that Don't Breathe 2 doesn’t have the likes of Renny Harlin or John McTiernan to help blast its way out of the corner, so it leans on schlock and surprises to overcome the doldrums of familiarity.
But until that happens, the familiarity lingers like a fog. Because they’re armed to the teeth, the paramilitary invaders are more formidable than the previous film’s crooks were, but the effect is largely the same as The Blind Man outwits them in violent fashion. Some gory outbursts (most notably one involving crazy glue) and some clever suspense sequences (like when Phoenix locks herself in a box that floods with water) are engaging but not quite enough to dispel the notion that any sequel to Don’t Breathe really doesn’t have a lot of room to work with. That’s the thing about gimmicks: once their novelty wears off, it’s tough to recapture the magic, so you’re left with a less inventive riff on the theme since this one prioritizes brutality over suspense even more than its predecessor. The home invasion mostly feels like standard slasher stuff, albeit with a maniac who’s basically Zatoichi Voorhees, as Lang continues to be an imposing presence, gliding with military precision and startling efficiency.
To the film’s credit, it senses that simply allowing its splatter movie theatrics to unfold on the same stage won’t suffice this time around, so it pivots wildly for a final act that finds The Blind Man leaving his home to seek vengeance. That’s not really the half of it, either, since Álvarez and Sayagues’ wild yarn spins into further madness with each perverse revelation. At a certain point, it starts to feel like there’s a tacit agreement underpinning the existence of Don't Breathe 2: yeah, we all know it’s kind of bullshit that The Blind Man would find himself in this position again, so the story might as well be completely outlandish. It’s successful in that I will not find myself trying to recall the plot of this sequel years down the line because it’s so deranged and wrong-headed. I can’t decide if Don't Breathe 2 is ultimately repugnant because it’s so outrageous or if it’s outrageous because it’s so repugnant: there are certainly some choices on display during the back stretch that should earn this one a place in that pantheon of sequels that make hard-left turns. Even if it only has that much going for it, it’s almost enough to nod along with that tacit agreement and accept that this is really the only way for Don't Breathe 2 to work. Like so many other wild sequels, it asks you to simply go with it, no matter how much it strains the boundaries of credibility and good taste.
One of the choices that makes that difficult to do, however, is the big, blind elephant in the room: the decision to make such a monstrous character an almost heroic, sympathetic protagonist. Monsters have routinely tread the line between antagonist and antihero on their path to becoming icons, so it’s not exactly surprising to see Don't Breathe 2 take this route at first blush. However, it crosses a line that few horror sequels ever have by making its Blind Man—who as we recall forcibly inseminated multiple women in the first film—the actual hero of the story. Don’t get me wrong: we all know that the likes of Freddy and Jason became the stars of their franchises, but the films treated them as antagonists that had to be vanquished. That’s not the case here, where, at best, The Blind Man is the lesser of two evils; at worst, he’s a redemptive figure who tearfully laments his misdeeds. The latter is an especially tough leap to make because we’re talking about an especially vile person here. Remarkably, the script pits him against people who are just as bad, if not worse, making it a little bit easier to see him as a violent means to a happy end in freeing the innocent Phoenix.
Like its predecessor, Don't Breathe 2 somehow does insist on a glimmer of hope seeping through its blood-soaked ruins and desolation. However, it’s more galling in this respect since its forced sentimentality stands in even starker contrast to its utter nastiness. This is a sequel that doubles down on its filmmakers’ insistence that so much is broken. Even if survival is possible, it still requires enduring a bleak crucible of torture and trauma where even the savior is reprehensible. A more ambitious film might be willing to explore these moral gray areas and perhaps arrive at some kind of insight, but this one is more interested in cartoon villains (Brendan Sexton III is an especially scummy highlight) enacting outrageous plot turns. In the world of Don’t Breathe, cruelty and trauma seem to be the point, something that admittedly feels a little transgressive coming from major studio fare. And had these movies caught me at the right time—say, about fifteen years ago, when I was more prone to embracing sheer provocation—I might have more praise for this sequel. These days, however, I don’t care to swish a bad taste around in my mouth for too long, so it’s hard to find much to embrace about Don't Breathe 2 outside of the demented imagination it took to hatch it in the first place. And even it’s so ridiculous that it’s hard to feel truly provoked or offended, so, what, really, is the point?
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