Don’t Breathe reeled in audiences and broke box-office records with its grindhouse hook: Three young thieves break into a blind guy’s house thinking he’ll be easy to rob, only to discover he’s an even deadlier blind dude than Daredevil. It’s a fun but frustratingly straightforward cat-and-mouse thriller. Well, until the nasty third-act reveal. Don’t Breathe 2 amps the scuzz up to 11, delivering more enjoyably lurid material than its predecessor.
The film takes a cue from Terminator 2: Judgment Day by turning the antagonist of the previous film into more of a protagonist. Stephen Lang’s performance as the blind man, Norman Nordstrom, is more effective this time around. For one thing, his strained, stately way of speaking is better suited to his role here as a mentor and father figure to 11-year-old Phoenix (Madelyn Grace), whom he rescues from a meth lab explosion in his dingy Detroit neighborhood.
Norman trains Phoenix to rise from the ashes like her namesake and defend herself from the punks prowling their streets. Unfortunately, she soon has to put this training to use when a gang of thugs follows her back to Norman’s house and wreaks havoc. The reason why they hunt her down is best kept secret.
We discover the criminals are all Iraq War veterans “dishonorably discharged from a dishonorable war.” This is a clever touch on the part of director Rodo Sayagues and his co-writer Fede Álvarez (who also co-wrote and directed Don’t Breathe), as it gives the villains common ground with Norman, a Gulf War veteran. Because of their military background, they’re a stronger match for him than the original film’s teenage hooligans.
The leader of the group, Raylan (Brendan Sexton III), is the most menacing and magnetic of the bunch. If you’ve followed Sexton’s career, it’s fun to imagine Raylan as a grown-up version of the miscreants he played in Welcome to the Dollhouse, Hurricane Streets and Boys Don’t Cry. He turns what could’ve been a two-dimensional tweaker into a character who feels lived in and fully realized. You can practically smell his cigarette breath whenever he snarls.
The film grows deliciously dirty in the final act. Unlike the first movie, this one explores more of the world outside Norman’s house. As night falls darker, Detroit begins to look like a dystopian wasteland, and you’ll feel as though you’ve entered John Carpenter territory when Norman finds himself in a dilapidated hotel and discovers plots regarding drug deals and organ trafficking. Sexton and Fiona O’Shaughnessy pack a particular twist with a punch that makes it all the more unsettling. This final act is an exhilarating fever dream from which you won’t want to wake.
All right, now it’s time to address the elephant in the room: Why should we follow the guy who raped and murdered in the first film? Fortunately, Sayagues and Álvarez never make you feel like you’re rooting for him. Rather, you’re rooting for the safety of Phoenix and the punishment of the punks who put her in harm’s way. She’s the heart of the story, thanks in large part to Grace’s tough yet tender performance. The film never shies away from depicting Norman as a monster. After all, he never teaches Phoenix anything beyond the most primal, predatory form of survival.
Don’t Breathe 2 is far from tasteful. It’s an exploitation flick through and through, but it’s well-made cinematic junk food.