When the trailer for Don’t Breathe 2, the much anticipated sequel to Fede Álvarez’s tense subversion of the home invasion film, was released, it was met with a lot of resistance. The trailer showed a film that chose to focus on Norman (Stephen Lang), the blind villain of the first film, as the anti-hero and his path to redemption despite his past—which involves using a turkey baster full of semen to forcibly impregnate a woman trapped in his basement. Director Rodo Sayagues and Alvarez, who co-wrote the film, assured audiences that the movie would be more complicated. Well, after seeing Don’t Breathe 2, I can confidently say that this movie is exactly what it looks like: A beautifully shot, hyper-violent and tense film with a morally repulsive story that refuses to acknowledge its main character’s horrific past.
The film begins with a young girl stumbling out of a house fire, then passing out in the street. Eight years later, we learn her name is Phoenix (Madelyn Grace) and she lives with Norman, who kidnapped, raped and impregnated a woman all so he could have a child. Now he has that child and he keeps her locked away, all for himself. He trains her in survival techniques, home schools her and only allows her to go to town once every few months.
But their quiet life is suddenly interrupted when a group of men, led by Raylan (Brendan Sexton III), breaks into their house with the intention of kidnapping Phoenix. Both Norman and Phoenix fight for their lives, quickly maneuvering around the house to hide from the hands—and pistols—of the invaders. While Don’t Breathe subverted home invasion expectations as those who broke in became victims of Norman’s own violence, Don’t Breathe 2 follows a more conventional home invasion plot for the film’s half. It does go off the rails in the final act, but not necessarily in a good way.
This is a redemption story that we didn’t need and barely confronts the events of the first film in a way that feels like we are supposed to forget. In fact, if you didn’t see Don’t Breathe, you’ll still be able to follow this film no problem, and this is a rare circumstance where that’s a bad thing. Without acknowledging that context, the film creates a character that is an anti-hero more than the villain he actually is. Instead, Sayagues and Alvarez focus on creating empathy for Norman. At one point, he’s about to shoot a dog so he can escape, but ultimately decides not to. The sequence is dramatic with slow orchestral music to connote that he does have some sort of conscience, all because he won’t murder a dog. Such a moment is almost comical as you realize that this is why we’re supposed to care about him. There are no moments of introspection that reflect back to the previous film; instead, it feels like he has an unearned blank slate to rebuild trust with the audience.
Norman isn’t the only villain; every character, except for Phoenix, is a nasty dirtbag whose only focus is making money and saving themselves. This group is disgusting and cruel, which makes for phenomenal villains that you can’t wait to see get their comeuppance. But their comeuppance comes at the hands of Norman, who doesn’t ever earn the audience’s trust, empathy or admiration. The film is two groups of bad people trying to kill each other, with a traumatized young girl in the middle watching her life violently unravel.
Grace’s performance as that young girl is incredible to watch. She is able to deftly move through a range of emotion, from childhood anger to horror to rage, creating a believable and sympathetic character who is trapped due to the consequences of others’ actions. She also holds her own during the more intense sequences, whether she is creeping down a hallway to evade detection or shoving a machete into someone’s chest. The rest of the ensemble is very good at playing vile human beings. Sexton in particular oozes dirtbag energy, as his uncomfortable cockiness and casual cruelty makes him a worthy opponent of Norman.
Strong performances are supported by Pedro Luque’s kinetic cinematography that captures the chaos that unfolds onscreen. The camera closely follows the action, twisting and turning as people fly out of windows, fall down stairs and chase each other through pitch black basements and hallways. Luque also constructs a gorgeous long take that follows Phoenix through the house as she rolls under beds and into closets as she tries to stay hidden from a henchman. The camera points up as she runs down the stairs and spins around to confuse the viewer, mirroring Phoenix’s own confusion and desperation to keep from being caught.
The cinematography is also able to build that signature tension that made Don’t Breathe so effective. The camera is always strategically placed to reveal to the viewer who is in the room and what is about to happen, while the characters themselves have no idea what to expect. This works in tandem with the film’s sound design, which is able to carefully balance the use of silence with a dramatic score.
That tension is broken with gore that does not disappoint. Faces are crushed, bones are broken, limbs are removed; Sayagues and Alvarez pull no punches in brutality. There is a particularly nasty moment involving super glue, mouths and a screwdriver. Anything is a weapon, including a jingle bell, and no one is dying a painless death. Instead, everyone is meeting a horrific demise that will make you squirm in your seat and laugh uncomfortably as you acknowledge, despite the violence, that it is rather clever.
While Don’t Breathe 2 emulates a similar aesthetic from its predecessor and is still able to skillfully build tension, it is ultimately an incredibly disappointing film. Don’t Breathe was an agonizing experience that made you really care for the group of thieves who are just trying to escape their traumatic lives. But there are no good guys here. It’s a bad man and a bad group of men fighting over a young girl not because they love her, but because she serves a specific purpose. Shocking imagery and stylized violence abound in Don’t Breathe 2, but they cannot salvage a film that doesn’t carefully or critically consider its past.
Director: Rodo Sayagues
Writers: Fede Álvarez, Rodo Sayagues
Stars: Stephen Lang, Brendan Sexton III, Madelyn Grace
Release Date: August 13, 2021
Mary Beth McAndrews is a freelance film journalist with a love of all things horror. She’s written across the Internet about found footage, extreme horror cinema, and more. You can follow her on Twitter to read more of her work, as well as her hot takes about her favorite cryptid, Mothman.