Don’t Breathe 2

Like its predecessor, Don’t Breathe 2 has tension to spare.  Stephen Lang returns as the blind man, who now cares for a young girl.  He homeschools her and teaches her survival skills, the justification for which becomes clear when the film’s bad guys show up.  DB2 has none of the first film’s subtlety and ambiguity, and instead opts for gruesome, brutal violence.  If you can handle the bloodlust and carnage, DB2 further challenges you by rehabilitating the blind man from his evil, grief-stricken behavior into a…hero?  A more nuanced movie would approach the topic of whether someone truly evil can ever be forgiven, but DB2 is not that movie.  Recommended, but don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Don’t Breathe 2 picks up sometime after the events of the original movie, which came out back in 2016.  Don’t Breathe was a nasty yet fun piece of work.  Writer/director Fede Álvarez deftly generated tension using a simple horror movie plot device (if you make the slightest sound, you die).  He then elevated the story by populating the movie with characters who all qualify as a “bad person” on some level.  The latter forced the audience to shift its sympathies throughout the movie, according to the “lesser of two evils” principle.  The result was a horror movie that was definitely scary, but with a layer of complexity you’d expect to see in drama.

As the action in Don’t Breathe unfolded, I first felt sorry for the blind man the young punks were trying to rob him.  Then, when the blind man is revealed to be completely merciless, I felt sorry for the punks, who clearly were overmatched by the former Gulf War veteran.  When the movie’s big reveal took place, I definitely felt sorry for the young woman chained up in the blind man’s basement, only to find out that she was the one responsible for killing the blind man’s daughter.  The blind man did receive $300k as compensation for his daughter’s death, but as we all know, money can’t bring back a loved one.  The blind man offers his grief as the explanation for his actions (abducting and impregnating his daughter’s killer), but grief cannot rationalize doing something plainly evil.  In the end, I went from being fine with the blind man meeting out some lethal justice to hoping the punks survive his wrath.

Don’t Breathe 2 (DB2) picks up sometime after the first movie.  The blind man (Stephen Lang) is still alive, and somehow has a young girl living with him.  News reports on TV mention a gang who’ve been abducting children and selling their organs on the black market.  The blind man keeps the young girl (Madelyn Grace) under close watch, only letting her go to the city once a month under the supervision of fellow vet Hernandez (Stephanie Arcila).  While in town, the young girl is spotted by Raylan (Brendan Sexton III), a member of the child abduction gang.  They follow and brutally take out Hernandez, an uneasy portent of the violence to come.  The gang heads for the house with the blind man and the young girl.

Director Rodo Sayagues films the first minutes of the home invasion as a continuous shot, the camera swooping around the house while the young girl evades the gang members.  Tension mounts with every creak and step until one of the thugs spots the girl and the blind man returns home.  At that point, the movie abandons the cat-and-mouse tension for horrific sadism on both  sides.  Unlike its predecessor, there is no subtlety or complexity to the ensuing carnage in DB2.  The best way I could describe it is knowing that someone will surprise you and hit you in the face with a bloody stump.  You just don’t know when it will happen, but it will.

DB2 generates tension, but in the opposite way as the original.  Instead of dreading someone being discovered, I dreaded waiting for one of the characters to be brutally attacked.  I’ve seen plenty of movies with gruesome violence, but DB2 doesn’t get off on its own depravity like House of 1000 Corpses.  It doesn’t pile on the violence for shocking laughs like You’re Next or The Hunt.  And it certainly doesn’t have the vacant nihilism of The Strangers.  The movie that I thought of that is the closest in tone to DB2 is The Hills Have Eyes.  I’m thinking of the original from 1977, but the remake from 2006 probably also fits the bill.  

Superficially, DB2 wants to be a latter-day Death Wish. In the third act, the blind man goes about retrieving his abducted surrogate daughter and delivering retribution at those who took her from him.  Lofty aspirations aside, DB2’s primal desire is for nearly every character to feel pain, inflict pain, and die choking on their own blood.  At one point, after the blind man has effectively disabled one of the attackers, he unnecessarily smashes the attacker’s head in.  With each blow, the young girl pleads with the blind man to stop, but he doesn’t until he hears the sound of the attacker’s skull being split.  DB2 is scary, but it’s scary because of its relentless brutality.  

Just like in DB1, DB2 forces us to sympathize with people we’d rather not be sympathetic towards.  The blind man was an admitted murder and a rapist in the first movie, but in DB2 he’s portrayed as a demanding but caring father to the young girl.  He found the girl lying on the street one day, passed out after escaping from a burning home.  Raylan, the leader of the child abduction gang, tells the girl that she’s his daughter, and that the blind man kept her without telling her that her parents were still alive.  The blind man admits this, but fails to tell her that he kept her from her birth parents because they were cooking and selling meth.  (The girl’s house burned as a result of a meth lab explosion.)

The girl is actually happy to finally be with her parents, even though we know they abduct children.  The dramatic irony of the girl’s limited knowledge of her parents and what we know about them being the only subtle element in the script.  Regardless, DB2 forces us to align ourselves with either the blind man, who clearly did evil things in the first movie, or Raylan and his gang, who are doing far more evil things in this one.  We again must decide who is the lesser of two evils, the blind man or the child abduction gang.

DB2 settles that argument in a particularly unsubtle way, though.  Raylan confesses to the girl that he didn’t take her from the blind man so that she and her mom can be a family again.  The girl’s mother (Fiona O’Shaughnessy) suffered internal organ damage from the meth explosion and fire, and needs a heart transplant from a close relative.  The mother was the gang’s cook, and if she dies, they have to continue abducting children and selling their organs instead of going back to selling meth.  This plot point didn’t make sense because in spite of what Breaking Bad tells us, cooking meth doesn’t require skills possessed by a few people.  Certainly the gang can find someone else to cook for them, besides the mother?

Anyway, Raylan’s plan is to have the girl donate her heart to the mother.  This is the point where I felt DB2 threw logic out the window for the sole purpose of setting up the final confrontation.   When Raylan asks the gang’s resident surgeon why the girl is still alive, the surgeon says that  he must cut out her heart while she is still alive, since he doesn’t have the instruments to preserve it during the transplant.  I thought to myself, if he doesn’t have the instruments to preserve the heart, how will he be able to keep the mother alive after he cuts out her heart?  How long would a heart continue beating after it is removed from a body?  The scenario makes no sense, since I’m fairly confident the operation would result in the death of both the child and the mother, the heart having long stopped beating along the way.

Thankfully, the blind man arrives on the scene before the nightmare scenario can begin.  One of the gang members helps the blind man and confesses that cutting the heart out of the girl while she is still alive isn’t right.  You think?  Somehow, he’s the only one of the ten or so people present who think that way.  Regardless of whether the ten are gang members, if only one of them thinks that what the surgeon is doing isn’t right, humanity is doomed.

The final confrontation is a bloody one, featuring a throat being slashed, a hand being hacked off, and eyes being gouged out.  Based on how the movie ends, I’m doubtful there will be a sequel, but who knows?  Michael Myers and Jason always managed to live (and kill) another day.

By showing the blind man as a caring surrogate father, DB2 positions him as a redeemed figure.  I wish DB2 had eased up on the bloodletting a bit so that it could do more than pay lip service to the idea of redemption for those who commit evil actions.  The blind man knows and admits to the girl what he’s done, and later tells her that she saved him.  I know a lot of people will take issue with DB2 over turning the blind man into a good guy.  DB2 would have been a much more complex movie than this one if it had taken the time to address this contradiction within the plot.  Instead, the movie took the easy route by making the blind man less evil than the child abduction gang.  The blind man may have done evil things, but he’s not “cutting the beating heart out of a girl” evil.

Can a character like the blind man be redeemed?  Can he be forgiven?  DB2 implies that he can be, but stacks the deck in a way that makes the decision far easier than it should be.  In society today, there are people who are “cancelled” over varying degrees of bad behavior.  Some have gone to prison, some have lost their livelihood, and some have managed to go on, forever tainted by what victims have revealed.  Can these people ever be forgiven?  Can they be redeemed?  What sort of penance would they need to do to receive either?  DB2 will never and should never be the movie to answer those questions, and I hope a far better movie comes along one day that does.

As the blind man, Stephen Lang is the only significant character who returns from the original movie.  (Christian Zagia also returns as Raul, but Raul is a minor character in both movies.)  Unlike the first movie, where the blind man was surprisingly lethal and morally compromised, DB2 has Lang portray him more like a reluctant action hero.  He’s a man of few words, constantly wracked with guilt over what he’s done.  The movie regularly has the (more) bad guys deliver physical punishment on the blind man, to the point where I did feel sorry for him.  I don’t know how any man as old as the blind man looks could take the constant physical punishment he does.  (Lang is 69 in real life.)  I guess being a Gulf War veteran gives you untold stamina.  Lang has great physical presence, and projects an air of menace even with his gray hair and wheezing voice.  I remember him as the evil Colonel from Avatar (2009), but don’t recall seeing him in anything else besides the Don’t Breathe movies.  It looks like he’s on hand for the upcoming four (!) Avatar sequels.  Maybe he will somehow be retconned into a good guy in those as well.

DB2 only had two characters I would classify as likeable.  The first is the young girl, played by Madelyn Grace.  Her portrayal of the young girl was the most important one in the movie.  If we don’t care about the girl and whether she survives, the movie would be unwatchable.  The character of the girl is vulnerable but not helpless, innocent but not naive, and capable but not superhuman.  The role would be a challenge for most adult actors.  Grace, only twelve, pulls it off very convincingly.  I suspect we’ll see more from her as time goes on.

The second likeable character in DB2 is Hernandez, and she is inexplicably killed early on.  There was little that Stephanie Arcila to do with the part, but I still was upset that she was killed off so quickly.  The potential was there to make the character a part of the action, and I consider that a lost (or ignored) opportunity.

In terms of subtext, I still don’t understand the intent behind making the blind man a Gulf War veteran.  Are the filmmakers trying to say that his moral compass was compromised by what he did in Iraq?  This would seem to be the case, since several members of the child abduction gang profess to be veterans as well.  But then Hernandez said she was a veteran also.  I’m probably making too much of this minor plot detail, but I’m curious why Alvarez makes a point of referencing it in both movies.

Finally, why do DB1 and DB2 make Detroit the breeding ground for all things evil?  Surely Detroit has enough going on without being the source of punks who either have no qualms about robbing a blind man, or abducting children and selling their organs.  In today’s world, it definitely is Detroit versus Everybody!

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