Written by: Mike Flanagan, Jeff Howard
Directed by: Mike Flanagan
Starring: Kate Bosworth, Thomas Jane, and Jacob Tremblay
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman (@brettgallman)
"Why do you have all these pills, Cody?"
"Because I don't like to sleep."
"Because I don't like to sleep."
In the years since its production, Before I Wake has gone on to join a dubious crowd of long-delayed movies whose inaccessibility become even more frustrating as time wears on. Like All the Boys Love Mandy Lane and The Poughkeepsie Tapes before it, this shelved project hails from a filmmaker whose profile has grown in stature, making its eventual release all the more anticipated. In this case, it’s the third—or at least should have been the third—film from Mike Flanagan, one of the horror genre’s most exciting new voices in the wake of Ouija: Origin of Evil, Hush, and Gerald’s Game, a trio that’s more than cemented his place as a guy whose work commands attention.
Case in point: when it was recently announced that Netflix would finally premiere Before I Wake, it immediately shot ahead of the other dozen or so movies in my queue, some of which have been sitting there for years. Unfortunately, I wish I could say I’m just as eager about having now seen the film: while Before I Wake is certainly a fine, commendable effort to repurpose familiar genre tropes, it’s a touch too heavy-handed and cloying for my liking, especially once it begins to stumble its way to a leaden ending.
You wouldn’t expect as much at first, not when the opening scene features a man (Dash Mihok) pulling a gun on a frightened child (Jacob Tremblay). While he can’t bring himself to pull the trigger, we’re left wondering how someone could even consider subjecting such a sweet kid to such horrors. Our answer begins to unravel as the story moves ahead some unspecified time to find Jesse and Mark Hobson (Kate Bosworth & Thomas Jane), a grieving couple still coping with the loss of their young son. After years of mourning and trying in vain to conceive another child, they decide to adopt Cody Morgan, the frightened-at-gunpoint tyke from the prologue.
Within one night, the Hobsons notice that Cody isn’t like most children, particularly when it comes to sleep. It isn’t just that he’s reluctant to sleep—the kid has an entire sugar stash devoted to keeping him up at night. Once he finally does drift off to sleep, his adopted parents are astonished to discover that his dreams somehow manifest themselves as tangible visions. Such a gift is all well and good when he’s dreaming of luminescent butterflies; however, his nightmares bring horrific visions of “The Canker Man,” a terrifying boogeyman capable of abducting victims off to a mysterious netherworld that may hold the secrets to Cody’s abilities.
Anyone familiar with Flanagan’s work won’t be surprised to discover he’s less concerned with crafting obnoxious, clichéd scares out of this premise and more preoccupied with the human implications of it all. While he and DP Michael Fimognari do craft some wonderfully vivid dreamscapes and scatter in an assortment of ghastly images, they feel more like embellishments to the drama rather than the film’s driving force. With the exception of a handful of scenes, The Canker Man lurks in the shadows of the plot, largely taking a backseat to the more potent, intriguing conflict that arises once Jesse realizes Cody has the ability to conjure up her dead son—even if he is nothing more than a figment of the boy’s imagination. With that in mind, she faces a moral dilemma that finds her practically exploiting the adopted child, much to the horror of her husband.
That’s the bulk of Before I Wake: a somewhat poignant exploration of grief, parental love, and repressed child trauma. Even if Flanagan loses the thread and doesn’t completely see it through, it’s an admirable stab at carving out a different vibe from these familiar trappings. With the combined familiarity of a creepy kid and paranormal nightmares, it’d be easy for Before I Wake to quickly degenerate into generic spook-a-blast tripe. For a while, though, Flanagan resists this pull, opting to table an endless parade of scares in favor of close-ups of his actor’s anguished faces, an approach that allows these performers plenty of space to inhabit the humanity lurking within these characters.
So many films with a similar premise don’t even bother to really take stock of their characters, but such an approach has become Flanagan’s calling card in recent years. By mining some complex, murky depths through the characters’ psychologies, he’s able to explore the genuine darkness that can accompany grief. No one in their right mind can truly fault Jesse for seeing Cody’s ability as a means of virtually resurrecting her son, yet it’s also hard to deny that it’s quite wrong. When her husband admonishes her for it, he also isn’t wrong, creating a complex dynamic that Jane and Bosworth nimbly amble through. Neither is reduced to the stock hero or villain because Flanagan has little interest in hysterics; in its place is the cold, sobering realization that life doesn’t always present clear avenues for moving forward. Sometimes, it only provides inexplicable gyres that consume you, trapping you in a feedback loop of your own agony and grief.
That said—and this was also the case with Oculus—the demands of the genre do eventually creep up and consume Before I Wake. A mid-movie turn of events essentially paints the film into a corner, and Flanagan has to resort to some familiar means of escape. Before you know it, the film becomes a half-baked recitation of the likes of The Ring (so much so that I have to think the “Morgan” surname is a nod in the direction of the remake), one that sees Bosworth poring through files and contacts to uncover the truth about Cody’s past. Before long, she’s trekking into the boy’s nightmarish netherworld in search of her husband in a scene that feels straight out of the likes of Poltergeist and Insidious. It isn’t a necessarily terrible retracing, but it’s a somewhat disappointing approach given the potent setup.
Even more disappointing is the stodgy, expository climax that stops the film dead in its tracks and Bosworth recounts her findings as a nakedly maudlin and overly manipulative bedtime story. Between the details and Tremblay’s overly precocious turn, I was reminded of A Monster Calls in more ways than one, which doesn’t exactly make for solid company in my eyes. Credit is due to Flanagan and co-writer Jeff Howard for striking a cheerful note from some otherwise ghastly proceedings, but it rings a bit too flat and resounds with an air of hollow preciousness that I can’t quite dig. However admirable it may be, it’s still a misfire.
In a roundabout way, the film’s long delay might be a boon. Had Before I Wake been released on the heels of Oculus, I might have been left wondering if the director of Absentia would ever recapture the spark that landed him on the radar back in 2011. Now, however, it’s easy to see this and Oculus as a couple of missteps on the path to the stellar work Flanagan has turned in since. And, if nothing else, they’re at least interesting missteps that stumble due to ambition—I’ll take that over any uninspired retread any day.
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