Norman Nordstrom (Stephen Lang) is a rapist and a murderer who kidnapped the woman involved in the car accident that killed his daughter, impregnated her using a turkey baster, and locked her in his basement to gestate what he considered to be the replacement child he was owed. In Fede Álvarez’s 2016 Don’t Breathe, he’s part tragedy-ravaged Gulf War vet and part fairytale monster, a human answer to the Pale Man in Pan’s Labyrinth who’s almost preternaturally strong and tough. He’s blind, but uses his other senses to hunt down the three would-be thieves who break into his house, assuming he’s an easy mark and discovering instead that he’s a terrifying antagonist. Only one of the trio survives to the end of the movie, and she almost becomes Norman’s next prisoner.
Norman survives, too, but it’s still disconcerting to see him ascend to main character status in the mean, fun Don’t Breathe 2. He’s not just a brutal killer, but someone who thought to use women as unwilling human incubators in the most literal sense, while defending himself by saying “I never forced myself on her.” There’s just enough real world nastiness to him to make you want to resist a rebranding as an anti-hero, though as Álvarez helpfully clarified on Twitter, he’s “not a hero on this one, not even an anti-hero. He’s an ANTI-VILLAIN.” Álvarez, who turned directing duties over to his Don’t Breathe co-writer Rodo Sayagues for the sequel, was lightly trolling, but it is fair to say that Norman gets the kind of child-endangerment storyline usually associated with redemption. He’s acquired a daughter, Phoenix, (Madelyn Grace), who doesn’t know she’s not his biological child until she’s grabbed by a group of ominous men who haven’t chosen her at random. He, of course, goes after her.
To watch horror movies is to watch bad things happen to people, which is why it’s almost inevitable that, when those movies spawn sequels or whole franchises, it’s almost always the villains we follow, rather than the survivors. The survivors — like Regan MacNeil, Nancy Thompson, or Laurie Strode — sometimes do come along too, but they’re not as essential as the boogeymen. The baddies in the Friday the 13th, Halloween, and A Nightmare on Elm Street series may not be the main characters of each installment, but they are the signature ones, and sometimes the urge to give those characters a heel turn is irresistible. Hannibal Lecter went from a silkily menacing advisor in a cell to a kind of swashbuckling cannibalistic suitor in the space between The Silence of the Lambs and Hannibal. The relentless killing machine played by Arnold Schwarzenegger in The Terminator became a devoted ally by Terminator 2. The thrill of watching these fascinatingly terrifying adversaries work against the main characters gets replaced by the parallel thrill of watching those fascinatingly terrifying qualities repurposed so they can be rooted for.
Don’t Breathe 2 wants you to root for Norman, but it also wants you to feel uneasy about doing it. The first film played with audience sympathies by aligning us with its teen hooligans and giving one of them, Rocky (Jane Levy), urgent reasons for needing money. Then it flips us away from them by having their next target be a disabled man who seemingly lives alone after the death of his family, and then pulls us back by revealing that he’s been keeping a captive. The sequel is even more of a stress test for automatic audience identification with a protagonist. Norman is protective of Phoenix, but also caves someone’s face in with a shovel while the girl looks on, screaming for him to stop. Norman cries over his dog, and also superglues someone’s mouth and nose so that they can’t breathe. The brutal gratification of Don’t Breathe 2 comes from watching Norman do to the gang what he did in Don’t Breathe, only this time, with characters who deserve it. If they deserve it. Midway through the film, any convictions about who Phoenix belongs with are given a shake-up, and then another one, until the point becomes how simple so many of the on-screen indicators that a character deserves sympathy actually are. We love charismatic murders and compelling monsters, but it’s always a little more comfortable to love them when they appear to be acting for good. The best thing about Don’t Breathe 2 is the way it constantly undermines that comfort, as though demanding we question the desire to assign hero and villain roles at all.
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