Don’t Breathe 2 (2021)
Director: Rodo Sayagues
Screenwriters: Fede Alvarez, Rodo Sayagues
Starring: Stephen Lang, Brendan Sexton III, Madelyn Grace
What do people want from a horror sequel? They want the same thing, but different. The Friday the 13th and Nightmare on Elm Street films follow an iconic villain killing their way through a set of teen characters; every Purge film since the second has been people walking around shooting people on Purge night until the plot is over; Happy Death Day 2U tells a different story with the same plot as the original in an expanded way. This is a reality of making horror in Hollywood, and what sells will be re-done until it doesn’t sell anymore. The very least studios owe audiences is a well-made version of the same thing.
That’s what Don’t Breathe 2 offers: the same premise and gimmicks of the first film in the proper package. There’s a tight script that hits all the right beats, there’s visual and sound editing that maintains suspense, and there are performances that fit what the film is going for. At the same time, Don’t Breathe 2 suffers from flimsy dialogue and characterisation, and could have benefitted from critical readings in pre-production.
Rodo Sayagues’ sequel to Fede Alvarez’s original horror film follows Phoenix, the daughter of Norman Nordstrom (Stephen Lang). Norman is a blind army veteran who was trying to non-consensually breed women to give him a daughter in the original picture, and now he keeps his daughter like a prisoner in his home. Given that dynamic, it’s incredibly uncomfortable watching him defend Phoenix as kidnappers break in, even if the action sequences manage to deliver. There are a few surprises along the way, just as there are with Don’t Breathe, though they are predictably less shocking here.
Stephen Lang brings convincing emotion and physical prowess to his lead role. There’s a sense that his character is conflicted and hurt despite his evil actions, and the credit for this must go to Lang because it hardly stems from the script. While the decision to portray a blind character as talented and capable is laudable, Norman seems as if he has super senses like a gritty Daredevil – his blindness is more plot device than a genuine portrayal of disability. Madelyn Grace’s performance as Phoenix evokes real empathy, and offers us a character to root for, but at the same time it feels cheap to use a child as an emotional buoy and she has a lack of agency throughout the film. This would be way more fun if she was going full Rambo or Kevin McCallister.
In one scene, Phoenix is in some kind of metal cabinet which only locks from the inside, leaving one to wonder what the function of such a container is – usually cabinets need to be accessible from the outside. A bad guy can’t get into it, so he pours water into it until Norman comes to fight him. Overall, the scene is tense, but it’s a missed opportunity to depower Norman while offering Phoenix something to do.
It is primarily the film editing that stands out in Don’t Breathe 2, editor Jan Kovac using the power of montage to build and maintain tension. Cuts from fighting to approaching danger in tight spaces is well-timed and doesn’t feel overdone. There is some excellent sound editing to go alongside the visuals – rather than the string music of jump scares, there’s a lack of music and an abundance of natural sound that never fails to place you into the atmosphere of a scene. Aesthetically, there’s plenty of expressionist lighting throughout the film, but the tonally dark ending scene bathed in red light is a highlight of the cinematography.
Unfortunately with regard to the overall enjoyment of this film, the antagonistic thugs are rather shallow characters who do little more than accomplish their jobs as the creepy individuals to be picked off. Even those who have a bit more to them are comically evil to make Norman look noble by comparison. There’s a moment where the lead kidnapper essentially does the Rocky 4 “if he dies, he dies” about his dog, just so the audience knows how evil he truly is. The last film’s home invader gang functioned as protagonists in a sense, and it would’ve been interesting to see how this film could have recycled that concept while persisting with Norman as the series’ antagonist.
In the world of horror sequels, Don’t Breathe 2 isn’t particularly special, but it isn’t the worst movie ever made. Fans of the genre will probably enjoy this film because of the decent filmmaking, high tension, and shocking moments that occasionally have emotional depth to them. Those more prone to scrutinize a film will probably find it too silly to take as seriously as it would like to be taken. It would be interesting to see what Fede Alvarez and Rodo Sayagues could do with more sophisticated scripts or concepts, though the “upcoming” portions of their filmographies don’t offer much promise.