The Blind Man in a Rage in Don’t Breathe (2021)
★★★ out of ★★★★★
Directed by Rodo Saygagues
Stephen Lang’s Blind Man is back. Though this time he’s managed to flip the script and is now the nominal protagonist in the sequel to the 2016 break-out surprise hit. Once the fearsome monster from the first movie, he is still a force to be reckoned with, but now he has a young charge to care for. It is tense and exciting, but there are still some major questions that require answers though.
Before A Quiet Place was released, the last movie that required audiences to instinctively hold their breath was the 2016 thriller Don’t Breathe. That movie oozed claustrophobia, as three young burglars got much more than they bargained for as their supposed easy mark, a blind man (Stephen Lang) with a big stash of cash, just happened to be a ripped ex-Army Ranger who had an innate killer instinct. It was both a critical hit, and a commercial success, but it felt like it would be a one-trick pony film.
Five years later, the producers figured out how to extend the story. Their internal data must have told them what the audience craved from the first movie, and that is The Blind Man, who for this movie was finally given a name, Norman Nordstrom. Lang, a long-time action movie character actor finally got his leading man role after decades in the industry. He was extremely compelling, but he was THE BAD GUY.
So, the trick for this film would be to take this ruthless killing (and raping) machine and make him sympathetic. Add in young Phoenix (Madelyn Grace) a steely and willful little girl, who has been raised by Norman. Immediately after the events of the first film, he rescued this little girl from the wreckage of a fire, where she had apparently lost her parents. She only has snippets of memories of her previous life. For eight years, she has grown up with the soft-spoken, but savage blind man, and his powerful Mastiff, Shadow, a survivalist life are all she knows. And, apparently, nothing else particularly violent has happened in the intervening years, so all is well, right?
This imperfect, but peaceful world is interrupted when a group of heavily armed men attempts to kidnap Phoenix, having lured Norman outside with a cruel distraction. Raylan (Brendan Sexton III), the leader of the kidnappers has, a very specific agenda in abducting Phoenix, and what seems to be a fairly straightforward plot becomes surprisingly layered, as more information gets revealed about the captors and your feelings about them have been carefully manipulated by the story writers and Sayagues to vacillate between siding with them and against them.
This is the core strength and weakness of this film. It operates on the premise that you are siding with a homicidal serial rapist, against a group of supposedly loathsome thugs. The story works hard to remind you that there is something not quite right about The Blind Man, but postulates that probably these kidnappers are even worse.
What this reminds me of is the heel to hero turn of the Terminator. Arnold Schwarzenegger was the important draw for this franchise, and when he returned for the second installment, he was still an almost unkillable machine, but this time he was OUR unkillable machine. I have always stipulated that in order to be a horror movie, the protagonists usually have to be at a serious power disadvantage to the adversaries. As with Terminator 2, Don’t Breathe 2 ends up having to turn in its horror membership card at the door. The Blind Man is, one-on-one, more than a match for any of the kidnappers, and he proves it by killing most of them off. (Not really a spoiler.)
That is not to say the movie is not exciting or intense. It is both of those, and that’s why it still manages to score relatively well, but it has lost much of the primal scariness that so infused the original. In that scenario, the kids who snuck into the Blind Man’s house were clearly and demonstrably overmatched and almost certain to die at his hands, even if they may have had it coming by breaking, entering, and attempting to rob him. Stephen Lang was SCARY. That is not to say that they nerfed the character, but they turned all that testosterone-filled anger in service of being the almost “good guy”. I would go so far as to say, this is awkward.
The movie tries hard to remind the audience that there is evil and darkness in this man’s past. However, in the plot’s willingness to paper over his past sins, I would like to remind our readers familiar with the first movie about one key object: THE TURKEY BASTER. Gross, so gross, and awful. Almost irredeemably awful. I have at least a couple of female friends who have already said “NOPE!” not going to accept this premise.
Something I found myself thinking at multiple times in this movie was “Why isn’t this guy in jail?” How hard is it to find a muscle-bound blind man on the run? The authorities found the bodies of the dead intruders in Norman’s previous house at the end of Don’t Breathe. Did they give up looking for him in the intervening eight years? I guess in Detroit, with so many abandoned homes, it is easy to become a squatter in an abandoned home and set up shop again. (An early shot in the film is passing the ruins of the home from the first movie.) The man is a horrifying menace, and unless you fundamentally and retroactively change the background of Norman Nordstrom, you’re not going to win over these fans.
I think it was clever to make this attempt at a redemptive flip of character. But it seems like they are operating with a brand new story. They did establish in the first movie that Nordstrom desperately wanted a child, and that’s why he did the awful things he was prepared to do… but that past is only suggested at. If this were a stand-alone film, it may have been more successful at this transition.
As a stand-alone composition, the action is fantastic. The cat and mouse drama is exciting. The clever use of the dogs is well done. The story twists and turns are well presented and argued, and even though you feel like the writers are trolling you a little, you are willing to let the doubts creep in and your allegiances soften, and that was something I did not expect to happen. Madelyn Grace is a young actress who could have been cloyingly annoying, but she suitably works both as a vulnerable target and a scrappy survivor.
The film is good to look at, and some of the set pieces are terrific, including the water-filled basement, and the not-filled swimming pool sequence at the end. The pacing is tight, and the siege film claustrophobia also works well. The movie is just burdened by abandoning many of the key premises of the first film, and also its horror roots. As an action-adventure, it succeeds, but it is no longer a horror film, as it delivers no hair-raising scares. You never truly get the sensation that the protagonists are going to lose this fight, particularly once they re-establish the dubiously moral high ground.
It’s worth a watch, just don’t expect to get scared like you did the first time.