Norman Nordstrom (Stephen Lang) is a serial killer and sexual predator who kidnapped a female victim in a car crash that killed his daughter, impregnated her with a turkey bottle top, and imprisoned her in his basement to conceive what he thought was his replacement child. He’s part tragedy-plagued Gulf War warrior and part fairytale monster in Fede Alvarez’s 2016 film Don’t Breathe, and a human answer to Pan’s Labyrinth’s Pale Man, who’s almost freakishly powerful and tough. He’s blind but he uses his other senses to track down three would-be burglars who break into his home, figuring he’s an easy target and instead discovering he’s a fearsome antagonist. Only one of the three makes it to the end of the film, and she is on the edge of becoming Norman’s next prisoner.
Norman lives as well, but seeing him advance to leading character status in the mediocre but entertaining Don’t Breathe 2 is unsettling. He’s not simply a ruthless killer; he’s also someone who considered women to be unwitting human breeders in the most literal sense, defending himself by stating, “I never pushed myself on her.” He has just enough real-world unpleasantness to make you resist renaming him as an anti-hero, but, as Alvarez helpfully noted on Twitter, he’s “not a hero on this one, not even an anti-hero.”
He’s an ANTI-VILLAIN.” Alvarez, who entrusted the sequel’s directing duties to his Don’t Breathe co-writer Rodo Sayagues, was joking, but Norman does get the kind of child-endangerment storyline usually associated with atonement.
“Don’t Breathe 2” takes place eight years after the events of the previous film, which places it in the near future. Norman snatched up a young girl (Madelyn Grace), brought her home, and reared her as his own. He also gave her the name Phoenix, which is a bit on the nose. Meanwhile, the Rottweiler that follows her about and protects her is named Shadow, and the film gets even less subtle from there. Phoenix has been cooped up in their old Detroit home since she was a child, but now that she is a tween she longs to have a regular life, meet friends, and go to school. We witness why the outside world is such a scary place on one of her weekly field trips to run errands with a trustworthy buddy.
(Also, it’s hard to say if this is the best or worst timing to release a film called “Don’t Breathe 2,” about people who stay inside their houses all day; the fact that it’s only playing in theaters suggests that the company is hoping you’ll be willing to leave yours).
We find out what they’re really up to when a group of dumb tweakers, lead by a scuzzy Brendan Sexton III, pursue Phoenix back home. The following turns range from intriguing to absurd, but they completely transform the film, transforming it from a reasonably standard home invasion thriller into something wilder, crazier, and—at times—darkly humorous. As Norman fights off and outsmarts his attackers, Sayagues’ restrained use of quiet, creaking doors, and slow footsteps in the first half of the film gives rise to gory, bloody action and dramatic sound design. Grace keeps up with the physical demands of her part throughout, but she doesn’t have much else to do. Phoenix is constantly reacting, whether it’s to new knowledge about her true identity or to the survival skills her “father” taught her. Subplots regarding an organ trafficking ring and a local children’s shelter, meanwhile, feel uncomfortably crammed in.
Watching horror movies means watching awful things happen to people, which is why, when these films produce sequels or entire franchises, we nearly always follow the villains rather than the survivors. Survivors such as Regan MacNeil, Nancy Thompson, and Laurie Strode occasionally appear, but they aren’t as crucial as the boogeymen. The villains of Friday the 13th, Halloween, and A Nightmare on Elm Street franchises may not be the central protagonists in each film, but they are the series’ signature characters, and the desire to give them a heel turn is sometimes tempting.
Between Hannibal and The Silence of the Lambs, Hannibal Lecter evolved from a silkily menacing counsel in jail to a type of adventurous carnivorous suitor. Terminator 2 turned the vicious killing machine played by Arnold Schwarzenegger in The Terminator into a dedicated ally. The excitement of witnessing these fascinatingly scary foes work against the main characters is replaced with a parallel delight of watching those fascinatingly terrifying qualities work against the main characters.
They couldn’t simply rewrite “Don’t Breathe.” That would be a waste of everyone’s abilities and no fun. Instead, they take Norman Nordstrom, Lang’s character, and give him a reason to leave the house. The end product is wackier and rougher, but never as tense or tight as before. Knowing all we know about his horrible past from the first film, it’s even tougher to root for him to defeat his attackers. Still, there’s considerable beauty here, notably, an outstanding, extended tracking shot through Norman’s house at the start of the break-in; specks of that kind of sophisticated choreography and camerawork can be seen elsewhere, but this scene stands out. Lang is always a menacing presence, with his shock of white hair and wiry physique, generating an impression of threat with little more than grunts and his physical steeliness.
Don’t Breathe 2 wants you to support Norman, but it also wants you to be uncomfortable doing so. The first film tapped into our emotions by putting us in the shoes of its teenage hoodlums and providing one of them, Rocky (Jane Levy), with profound financial motivations. Then it pulls us back by revealing that their next target is a crippled guy who appears to live alone after his family died, and then it flips us away by revealing that he’s been holding a captive. The sequel puts the audience’s capacity to relate with a protagonist to the test even further.
Norman is protective of Phoenix, yet he also slams a shovel into someone’s face while the girl stands there screaming for him to stop. Norman weeps over his puppy and superglues someone’s lips and nose shut, preventing them from breathing. Don’t Breathe 2’s horrific enjoyment comes from witnessing Norman do to the gang what he did to them in Don’t Breathe, only this time with characters who deserve it. If they are deserving of it. Any convictions about who Phoenix belongs with are shaken midway through the film and then shaken again, until it becomes clear how simple so many of the on-screen cues that a character deserves sympathy are.
We admire charismatic killers and captivating monsters, but it’s always a little easier to love them when they appear to be operating in the best interests of humanity. The best thing about Don’t Breathe 2 is how it continuously subverts that comfort as if demanding that we reconsider our urge to assign hero and villain roles in the first place.