Dr. Sleep Finds Its Own Way to Escape the Shadows of the Past.
DIRECTED BY MIKE FLANAGAN / 2019
The moment the familiar DUH DUH duh DUH strains play over the Warner Brothers logo at the start of the film, it becomes clear that Mike Flanagan’s Dr. Sleep isn’t going to shy away from direct connections to The Shining. Callbacks to the Kubrick film are used liberally throughout, sometimes as subtle Easter Eggs, and sometimes in complete recreations of iconic shots and sequences.This might seem like it would be difficult to view Dr. Sleep on its own terms, out from the shadow of its predecessor. But Dr. Sleep is telling a much different story than The Shining, and while it’s not as masterfully done, it’s still good enough to keep you invested for its two-and-a-half hour runtime.
The Shining was a ghost story about a place where so many bad things happened over the years, a store of negative energy built up, ready to consume anyone who was exposed to it. Dr. Sleep has its share of ghosts, but it plays more like a vampire movie. It’s villains seek out and consume the life essence of their victims.
Flanagan’s previous project, The Haunting of Hill House, was a series made for Netflix featuring ghosts that haunt a family, both literally and metaphorically. He’s exploring similar themes here, as he picks up the story of young Danny Torrence (Roger Dale Floyd) a short while after he and his mother escape the Overlook Hotel at the end of The Shining. Danny’s still pursued by the Overlook’s ghosts, most notably the decaying old woman with a fondness for bathtubs. Luckily, Danny is also visited by the ghost of Dick Hallorann, the Overlook’s cook (Carl Lumbly), who is able to counsel the boy on how to confront and defeat the demons chasing him.
Hallorann’s advice works well enough for the supernatural ghouls that pop up in Dan’s life as he grows older, but can’t do anything to help deal with the trauma he suffered because of his father’s violent attacks on him and his mother, nor do they help him deal with his own telepathic powers. As a man (now played by Ewan McGregor), he’s become an alcoholic who can get dangerously violent himself when angered.
A chance encounter with a stranger, Billy (Cliff Curtis), leads Danny to turn his life around. He stops drinking, attends AA meetings, and gets a job at a hospice care facility, where he can use his “shine” to help the patients pass on peacefully. Everything is finally coming up Milhouse for Dan. And it’s at this point a young girl named Abra enters into his life.
Abra (Kyliegh Curran) is a thirteen-year old girl with a powerful “shine.” One night, she senses the death of a young boy at the hands of a strange cult led by a woman named Rose the Hat (seriously, these Stephen King names). This cult kills them that shine and consume their “steam” in order to rejuvenate themselves and live prolonged lives. When Rose catches Abra shining, the cult starts tracking the girl down. Abra reaches out to Dan for help.
That’s a lot of plot for the setup for the film, and there’s more still I left out. Even at 151 minutes, there doesn’t seem to be enough movie to deal with everything the long first act introduces in a satisfying manner. And indeed the back half of the film does feel slightly rushed, especially once they get to the place everyone knows they’re going to get to eventually. A climactic confrontation between Dan and one of his most dangerous ghosts (played by Henry Thomas) is nicely written and wonderfully acted by both parties, but doesn’t land with as much impact as it could, because it has to be cut short to get to the next plot development.
I haven’t read the book, but this feels like a movie that really wants to be faithful to the source material as much as it can. King is famously not a fan of Kubrick’s adaptation, and one senses that part of Dr. Sleep‘s job is to give King The Shining he’s always wanted (yeah, I know about the TV miniseries, but the less said about that, the better). Like every other movie that has to be extra-faithful to the source material (see also: the first two Harry Potter movies), it’s afraid of leaving anything out.
But overall, Flanagan’s film moves briskly and the central relationships between both Dan and Abra, and Dan and Billy are built well and engaging. All three actors play off each other with sincere energy and Curtis does especially fine work as a normal guy who’s suddenly thrust into the world of the supernatural. When he’s told about the murder Abra witnessed, Billy goes with Dan to find the hidden burial site. “I don’t know if it’s worse if your wrong about this or right,” Billy tells Dan. If Dan’s wrong, that means Dan’s crazy, but Billy can handle crazy. If Dan’s right, that means the world is a much darker and scarier place than Billy ever could hope to conceive of.
Both Dan and Abra have to confront that darkness, both without and within them. They know there are monsters out there that eat children and will pursue them to the ends of the Earth, and they know there are demons inside us that we can never run away from.