2016’s Don’t Breathe is one of the best thrillers of the last decade—to say that I was excited when Don’t Breathe 2 was announced is putting it mildly. My vision of what this sequel could bring to the table was drastically different from the end result. With Jane Levy not returning, avenging the events and deaths of Don’t Breathe was unfortunately not in the cards. Instead, Fede Alvarez (the first film’s co-writer and director) molds the movie around Stephen Lang’s despicable Blind Man—this time around known as Norman—and his new secluded life in the woods with a spunky young orphan girl, Phoenix (Madelyn Grace). Alvarez returns to write the second film’s script with partner Rodo Sayagues, this time with the roles of director swapped between them. The tension is just as perfectly orchestrated. Phoenix is a character one can truly root for, and coupled with plentiful and shockingly gory kills, Don’t Breathe 2 is a major fun thrill ride.
The first of the visual Easter egg callbacks to Don’t Breathe comes right in the opening scene. In slow motion, Phoenix walks down the street having escaped a ravaging house fire and collapses on the sidewalk. In a reverse of the 2016 film’s flashback structure, Don’t Breathe 2 charges forward eight years. Phoenix has been living all this time with Norman (“father”) and his dog, Shadow, in a tiny cabin. Isolated from the outside world, Phoenix just wants to have friends and “be normal.” Delivery driver Hernandez (Stephanie Arcila) takes Phoenix out to a park from time to time so she can be around other children. Phoenix begins to obsess and romanticize the idea of Covenant Shelter—fantasizing about playing with the others, and living together with them in harmony like some Secret Garden scenario.
Similar to the original movie, background situations and objects tease their possible importance in an ominous way. A close-up on a cabinet and a pitchfork have later payoff, and emphasizing their existence early on makes the event itself explosively exciting. A news report about an organ trafficking ring sets up the backbone of the main plot. When Phoenix is out with Hernandez, the girl has an encounter with a strange man lurking in the bathroom. He appears about to snatch her when Shadow comes to her rescue. She says the dog could “rip your testicles off,” but when Phoenix exits, the stranger runs a hand through her hair. He hops into a van and follows Hernandez as she drives the girl home.
That stranger and a set of “dishonorably discharged” military men descend upon the small cabin, and all hell breaks lose. The men come to the house with a vendetta, and Norman is not about to come quietly. Norman will do anything and everything in his power, as he is fiercely protective over Phoenix. Having previously lost his blood daughter to a hit-and-run accident, Norman employs all manner of shocking tactics in his pursuit of Phoenix.
One of the biggest talking points is sure to be Stephen Lang’s previously villainous character becoming something of an antihero in Don’t Breathe 2. Make no mistake, he is still a terrible person. His history of rape and revenge is neither excused nor ignored. In the first film, Money (Daniel Zovatto) says of The Blind Man: “Just because he’s blind don’t mean he’s a saint, bro.” This statement is equally important here. Norman, a former Navy Seal, kills people ferociously and without care, and Rodo Sayagues revels in the gnarly aftermath of every death. Lang adds layers to the character among limited dialogue. This is a fantastic lead performance that made me even more excited to see what Stephen Lang will be doing in Avatar 2-5.
Lang’s scene partner, Madelyn Grace, is a great young child actress required to do a significant amount of heavy lifting. Her Phoenix character is not solely a throwaway—she is just as much of a lead as Norman, if not more so. Their bond is the only thing that even slightly endears or redeems Norman in any way. The rest of the ensemble is great. In particular, one actress really understands the assignment, playing up purposefully hammy dialogue delivery and a hilarious villain monologue (you will know her when you see her!)
Don’t Breathe 2 deals with themes of rebirth, redemption, and forgiveness, wrapped up in bloody horror carnage. It sells themes with energy, delivering big crowd-pleasing moments in quick succession. A tunnel system, an abandoned hotel simply called “Hotel,” unexpected twists, unprovoked smooches, a hair revelation, two dogs with vital plot importance, a multi-use screwdriver, and some seriously twisted family dynamics are highlights of a script not afraid to highlight the tongue-in-cheek dark humor. Throw in the impeccable sound design—utilized precisely since Norman’s character is so in tune with noise—and the camera panning to follow the action dynamically, and you have a Don’t Breathe 2 that is a worthy (if not quite as strong) horror/thriller sequel. Be sure to stay after the credits for a tantalizing tease that suggests a potential Don’t Breathe 3!
Don’t Breathe 2 will leave you gasping for air, exclusively in theaters everywhere on Friday, August 13th.