Runtime: 98 minutes
Director: Rodo Sayagues
Writers: Rodo Sayagues, Fede Alvarez
Actors: Stephen Lang, Madelyn Grace, Brendan Sexton III, Adam Young, Rocci Williams, Christian Zagia, Fiona O’Shaughnessy, Bobby Schofield
By Caelyn O’Reilly
Content Warning: Discussions of physical and sexual abuse
I find that every year there are cinematic trends that seem to keep popping up, not just in the obvious ways in production (i.e. what kinds of film are getting made), but in the reception. Each year there are emotions I seem to come out of the cinema with surprisingly often, both positive and negative. Excitement for new possibilities, a deep sense of content, a bizarre inability to process what has just been seen, etc. And, for me, the overwhelming feeling I’ve been leaving with again and again in 2021 has been a clear sense of disappointment. As The-Great-Stay-Indoors-Time tentatively peters out and once delayed cinematic releases finally see the silver screen, I’ve found that many of those movies I spent the whole of 2020 waiting for weren’t all that worth the wait; “In The Heights”(2021), “F9”(2021), “Spiral”(2021), “A Quiet Place Part 2”(2021). Franchise follow-ups I spent all that time excited for kept letting me down. I left the cinema thinking “These are the trailers I kept watching over and over from the confines of my flat?” My favourite films of the year so far are still either largely on-demand releases like “Barb and Star go to Vista Del Mar” (2021) and “The Mitchells vs the Machines” (2021) or belated Oscar winners like “Nomadland”(2020) and “The Father”(2020). The year 2021 has yet to have that film that makes me remember why I love going to the cinema so much.
You could argue some of this feeling is down to overhype, but after seeing hundreds of films at the cinema, going through the hype cycle and getting every result of quality and satisfaction from fantastic to awful, I’ve gotten a knack for being able to separate my expectations going in from my feelings about the film on the way out. And most of these films I’ve been so disappointed by have been just meh or fine (that three-star rating on Letterboxd has been doing some heavy lifting this year). So I can say with confidence that “Don’t Breathe 2”(2021) – the sequel to one of my favourite horror films of the past decade that I’ve been hyped for ever since I saw its existence mentioned on IMDB – is absolutely awful.
The first “Don’t Breathe”(2016) was outstanding. A follow-up to Fede Álvarez’s and Rodo Sayagues’ criminally underrated revival of the “Evil Dead” franchise (which has one of the best climaxes ever put to film and no, I’m not kidding) the production reunited the pair with star Jane Levy and composer Roque Baños to create the best film of possibly all of their careers to that point. A delightfully twisted subversion of the bog-standard home invasion/action movie trope of a group of criminals invading the life of a target who turns out to be an ex-military person far more physically capable than themselves. If you are a fan of a lean, perfectly paced, sub-ninety-minute movie with a ruthless narrative efficiency and an entire arsenal of Chekhov’s guns then “Don’t Breathe” is right up your alley. It is one of my favourite kinds of film, a fully realised version of itself that explores every avenue you could want from the premise and then some. So at first glance a direct sequel might seem an odd choice, but I was excited nonetheless.
The approach Álvarez and Sayagues took to this sequel was surprising, and not in a good way. They seem to have decided to try to subvert audience expectations from the first movie by subverting that film’s subversion… which just cancels out and leads us right back to that tired action movie premise we started with. And that is exactly what “Don’t Breathe 2” is, it’s just an action movie. Not a universally bad idea, “Aliens” (1986) exists after all to show this genre shift can work. But the pivotal flaw in this film isn’t the change of genre, it’s the change of protagonist. Levy is out this time – and thankfully so – not only because she got a happy ending, all-too-rare in horror cinema, but because I would hate to see her have to witness what happens here. Because this film’s hero is the original’s villain, the nameless blind man played by Stephen Lang. In the original he was a deeply sinister figure whose dark motivations, once revealed, were unforgettable. Lang slot into the role masterfully and made the character a terrifying, commanding presence in every scene. And he is a true villain; a violent murderer, kidnapper, torturer and sexual abuser.
“Don’t Breathe 2” makes the sheer unfathomable decision to try to turn this man into John Wick. He is now an unquestioned good. He has a friend and a daughter (that he stole), the latter being an especially stomach-churning prospect if you’ve seen the first film. If you’re wondering how they pull that off after his actions in the previous movie, it’s simple, they mostly just ignore it. It’s a baffling gear shift that leaves the project feeling like one of those direct-to-DVD sequels where they take the name and maybe one original cast member and pump out some cheap dreck to capitalise on name recognition. But this is made by almost the entire original creative team. It’s like they got bored with their own movie and made this out of sheer spite. The writing is also a lot worse this time out and distressingly sloppy. The pair of Álvarez and Sayagues have gone from crafting a screenplay that runs like a well-wound watch, to a dull script with extraneous characters and villains who try to kill the one person they need alive.
The distinctive colour palette and score from the first film are largely reused here but feel completely out of place with the genre shift, and when they do try to refit them for an action film it falls woefully flat. Roque Baños’ score for the original is one of my favourite soundtracks of all time, a haunting array of atmospheric dirges crafted out of instruments made from household objects that made it seem as if the very setting itself was singing. And, in one of the cringiest cinematic moments of a year where Big Chungus made his film debut, this sequel tries to turn that into an electric guitar driven rock song for a generic “shit just got real” rearming montage before the third act.
But all those flaws really pale in comparison to that protagonist switch. Even if every other aspect of the production had worked, that one narrative decision is practically unsalvageable. Perhaps the filmmakers were trying to pull the same role reversal as the previous film, but that couldn’t work. While the thieves of “Don’t Breathe” were in the role other movies would put villains into, they themselves were highly sympathetic characters. Even the least likeable among them was loyal to a fault and refused to betray his friends even with a gun pointed at his face. The Blind Man isn’t a person who would be a villain in most movies placed into the role of a hero, he’s just a monster, and this film does backflips to avoid really confronting that. Also, it’s deeply embarrassing to watch this movie flail in its attempts to make bad guys more disdainful than the character they’re now lionising. They end up being so cartoonish I’m surprised they weren’t written as puppy smugglers who use their kidnapped dogs to power giant, polluting machines that demolish orphanages. But out of all this confusion the main question I’m left puzzling over is: who is this movie even for?
You might think, given how much it ignores and contradicts the previous film, “Don’t Breathe 2” is for people who haven’t seen the first film or are even aware of its plot. And that would be an easy answer were it not for the brief few moments where this film does seem to expect its audience to remember the events of its predecessor. For instance I think it might puzzle newcomers that when The Blind Man finds a lost and injured young girl in the middle of the street he doesn’t contact any authorities but instead keeps her like a stray kitten. And during his faux-sad “I’ve done bad things” monologue at the climax his blunt allusion to his violent sexual abuses in the first film will be a jaw-dropping record scratch moment for any new viewers. If you haven’t seen the first film then it’s a thinly sketched series of tropes with a couple of bizarre, head-scratching moments. If you have seen it then this is an unwatchable betrayal. I cannot begin to picture who this movie is for. Honestly the most rational explanation I can see is some “The Producers”-style self-sabotage or – more concerningly – people who saw the original and thought The Blind Man was somehow in the right all along.
But most upsetting of all is what this movie says about abuse through its portrayal of Lang’s character and his relationship to Phoenix (the kidnapped girl I refuse to refer to as his daughter) played by Madelyn Grace. The film is completely disinterested in really interrogating how she is treated. She is raised in complete social isolation, homeschooled and trained in action movie survival tactics (which are bizarrely unutilised outside of a very brief sequence of her hiding from home invaders in a long take that oh-so-briefly evokes the strengths of the original film). The only people she seems to have any relationship with are The Blind Man and another adult woman he’s casual friends with. The film has no negative opinions on this horrifically isolationist upbringing, presumably based in the need to hide her from the world so no one finds out he abducted her. By the narrative’s end he is vindicated and saves the day by doing what he does best, murdering people a whole lot. And to top it off, a major narrative thread in the film is Phoenix learning her birth name, and when all is said and done the film closes on her choice not to use her birth name, or craft her own identity, but to keep the name given to her by her abductor. The film goes to these ludicrous extremes, crafting the most cartoonish villains, just so it can portray Lang’s character as a comparatively “good” parental figure. It’s deeply ghoulish and not in the fun Halloween-y way.
Ultimately “Don’t Breathe 2” attempts some half-hearted, last-minute moral about atoning for one’s sins but it falls completely flat not only due to the laughable mess of a film that preceded it but because you can’t exactly atone for sins you’re too cowardly to acknowledge beyond scant pieces of lip service. The whole thing is a baffling failure that ranks up with the great cinematic disasters of recent years like “Cats” (2019), “The Snowman” (2017) and “The Book of Henry”(2017). Yet another 2021 filmic disappointment that bodes a troubling future for Álvarez and company. I worry they could go the way of Neil Marshall, who started out his career with exciting low-budget horror films like “Dog Soldiers” and “The Descent” but failed to ever recapture it, ending up directing dire fare like the 2019 “Hellboy”. Perhaps that dread of what could be in store is the true horror this Halloween. Or maybe I’m just stretching to find a relevant closer to this review of a really awful film. Either way, very spooky.