New from Robert Daniels on 812 Film Reviews: ‘Doctor Sleep:’ Is a Fanciful Dream…Until it Awakes

Rating: 3/4

Months after the events of The Shining (1980), bowl-cut bicycle pedaling Danny Torrance (Roger Dale Floyd) remains haunted by the phantasmagorical residents of the Overlook Hotel. He’s not talked for months, except to Hallorann (Carl Lumbly, a very believable stand-in for the legendary Scatman Crothers). Danny doesn’t want to ‘shine’ anymore. And who could blame him? The same corroded woman in the bathtub picked up sticks to his new home in Florida, still ghoulishly cackling. Hallorann instructs the exhausted boy to create an imaginary box in his mind, there he can entrap these hauntings—never to bother him again. But there’s another reason he should worry. Unbeknownst to him, a gang of specters consume the steam the shine provides, surviving through the ages on the final terrified breaths of children. 

Doctor Sleep fast forwards to 2011, a now adult Dan (Ewan McGregor) careens through life as a bar-brawling alcoholic. He drinks because the numbing feeling hides his shine, and connects him to his long, gone ill-fated father. He happens upon a small town in New Hampshire, meeting Billy (Cliff Curtis) and kicking his alcoholism. The first two acts of Mike Flanagan’s Doctor Sleep: the eponymous Stephen King written sequel to The Shining, radiates as a singular vision when Flanagan follows his style, yet dims in a disjointed third act that miraculously doesn’t inhibit a successful continuation of the revered Kubrikian work. 

Flanagan follows three narrative roads: Dan living life as an orderly, a young powerful girl Abra Stone (Kyliegh Curran), and the vicious band of mystical serial killers led by Rose the Hat (Rebecca Ferguson, wonderfully demented) and Crow Daddy (Zahn McClarnon). Doctor Sleep surprisingly communes poignancy and mortality. Dan’s work as an orderly puts him in direct contact—not with the dead—but those on the precipice. Many patients are scared, fearing the void. But Dan helps to ease their worries, allowing peaceful entries into the afterlife as he lightly reconnects with his shine. These segments are attuned to a hopeful dreaminess, far different from Kubrick’s penchant for tension.

In Dan’s room, there exists a blackboard where Abra telepathically communicates by writing simple messages to him: “Hello” and “Good morning.” She found Dan like a GPS signal, sensing the same shine in him. But Abra is an outcast: a weirdo to her friends. Thankfully, we never have to see her harness and discover her abilities as a narrative arc, or watch an all-powerful being learn empathy. Instead, she’s well aware of her capabilities—and Kyliegh Curran delivers a breakout performance in the process. Even so, Abra’s shine makes her a target.

Marauding serial killers roam the countryside, accompanied by The Newton Brothers’ brooding score. They look for children with the shine, focusing on adolescent victims because as we age we become polluted. When they locate their next kill they’ll decide if they will consume their steam or turn them to their team to “Live long, eat well.” One such person they turn is Snakebite Andi (Emily Alyn Lind), a 15-year old girl who lures pedophile, robs them, and leaves a snakebite scar carved by a knife on their faces. Their hunts resemble the most realistic depiction of serial killers in recent memory: Each member has a role in tricking children into their mitts, but it’s their gruesome murdering of them that unnerves. They literally gain sexual pleasure from such. And though Flanagan never depicts any gore, blood-turning screams of mutilated children imprints in the ear like tracks in wax.

Throughout these segments, Rebecca Ferguson literally captivates against type. Rarely a villain, here she’s entrancing— seething with anger and force. Her best scenes stretch from the unbridled rage she shown toward Abra: as the young girl attempts to uncover their crimes, and the comforting deathbed soliloquy: recalling memories of gladiators, popes, and kings gone by, she gives to one of her friends. It’s a refreshing turn for an actress who still hasn’t been given the kind of roles her talents begs for.

The first two acts of Doctor Sleep offer an impressive and unique take on the mythology of The Shining—a portrait of mortality told through the gloomy cinematography of Michael Fimognari expresses those who quietly embrace the void and those fighting against their dimming light. That poignant sentiment, with Dan reconciling the trauma caused by his father nestles Flanagan’s narrative in straws of intimacy and self-reflection, and returns McGregor a vaulted acting perch, demonstrating quiet ease and vulnerability to a character who’s known more of death and loss than most. Moreover, Flanagan’s sketching of Abra adds an endearing new hero to this universe. However, throughout he shows a world losing its shine, there’s less and less for Rose the Hat and her marauders to thrive on: a parable of our ever-growing postmodernist cynicism. They come after Abra because her shine could light the power grid of a small country, transitioning to an uneven third act of Dan and the young girl teaming together.  

They need to team together because in a fair fight, they’d lose. But together, in the Overlook Hotel, they stand a chance. Flanagan’s Doctor Sleep diverges from King’s in these crucial scenes. In his adaption, the director mostly tries to sincerely compose King’s interiority: the haunting synonyms of humanistic fears imbued in his characters and melancholic language. But in the third act, he tosses the author’s narrative away. That decision steers Doctor Sleep from a thoughtful expression of mortality and summoning one’s inner strength to a fright-less hall of mirrors homage to The Shining, recalling the hotel’s famous past inhabitants. The importance of Dan’s growth is thrown away and even Abra is left with not much to do. Mind you, this comes after we saw Abra excitingly deliver the backhand of the century to Rose the Hat. Instead, she’s rendered relatively mute: a sad conclusion for someone who circumvented the traps of Black magic. Both Abra and Dan are confined to the faithful but tawdry recreation of the Overlook through some questionable production design.

While Flanagan’s Doctor Sleep doesn’t demonstrate the courage to remain true to itself: not in the same manner Dan and Abra are to themselves, falling to a balancing act between his and Kubrick’s vision, the fascinating character studies of the film’s first half haunts us enough to make the lonely quiet moments of the night more existential by actualizing the literal and metaphorical dark through those closest to it. Those factors make Doctor Sleep a somewhat worthy and unique successor to The Shining.         

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