Friday, November 8, 2019


One of the better belated sequels of recent vintage, Mike Flanagan’s Doctor Sleep has the unenviable task of continuing Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 classic Stephen King adaptation The Shining. To do so, he's using King’s own recent novel sequel, which already imagined a life for a now-grown Danny Torrance, the boy who once was terrorized in the events of the original story. But what a stylistic risk to dive back into the cinematic terrain so thoroughly colonized by Kubrick’s vision, the expertly creepy craftsmanship with the extra frisson of elevation, the prickly raised-hair-on-the-back-of-the-neck patience and precision of its long takes and eerie echoes in the cursed Overlook Hotel. Flanagan’s film can’t match that, but it has a similar pervasive dread, and a low simmering unease that pervades every moment. It helps that the film is both totally indebted to its predecessor and off on its own track, telling a new story in slightly different modes than Kubrick’s. Flanagan is a fine horror craftsman, probably best known for polishing up the likes of Ouija: Origin of Evil, which would’ve been more dubious in lesser hands. His steady, sturdy work over the past decade or so has been growing prominence and promise, and here comes into its fullest and most satisfying expression. The film is hushed and restrained, methodically plotted and shot with a ghostly chill. We may have left the confines of the Overlook, but the memory of its menacing potential lingers over these new events. Flanagan doesn’t use the earlier film lightly or cheaply; instead he builds upon its unresolved tensions. It neither closes off nor riffs pointlessly on the iconography. He extends its implications, expands its world, and — though it can’t match the ineffable, startling, singular qualities of its inspiration — builds an absorbing related one of its own.

The Shining is an intimate story of madness eroding a family, alcoholism and isolation acting as evil bedfellows that imperil a mother and child as a father is drawn into darkness. It’s harrowing and contained. Doctor Sleep, however, is both the opposite and of a piece. It’s an echo of tone and style — long takes, austere compositions, carefully gathered portent — in a film that’s more sprawling and open-ended. It’s about a son trying to atone for the sins of the father, about recovery from trauma and addiction as a tenuous and fraught desire to go toward the light. Danny (Ewan McGregor) is now a middle-aged recovering alcoholic working in a small-town hospice. His use of his magic, his shining, is limited to making the patients feel peaceful in their last moments. He’s clearly trying to fix his own life post-addiction (one early sequence's ugly consequences recall a few memorably frightening moments in Trainspotting). And he's also, in some small way, trying to put some goodness back into the world. He’s been haunted by ghosts of his childhood, by memories of what the darkness in this world is capable of corrupting. He’s slowly drawn into a story that sprawls across psychic spaces and the vast plains of America, a story about potential squandered, the vulnerable violated, and weakness exploited. He feels their pain. There’s a 13-year-old (Kyliegh Curran) who is just starting to reach out into the telekinetic connections her shining offers her. She’ll get the attention of Danny—voices echoing across the distance bringing their like-minded powers together. She’ll also get the attention of evil shiners, a roving band of them (led by a beguiling, charismatic Rebecca Ferguson) who feed vampirically off the shine of others.

Thus the stage is set for conflict, much of which takes place through the eerie mental connections made between the characters, an invisible force lurking underneath normality on the surface. The actors have such open, sensitive faces, and are directed into states of completely earnest reactions to the story’s tender interpersonal moments and potential for broad horrors. They feel convincingly real, and the film patiently doles out their lives, not rushing to a scare, but allowing a picture of quotidian living punctured by the surreal. I found the leads intensely appealing, and cared for their plights. The inevitable gnarly gore effects, sparingly revealed, are all the more effective for it. The result is a movie where the characterizations are as compelling as the overall atmosphere and genre trappings, where a fragile connection between strangers who just want to help is delicately sweet, and where the evil plans of dark people feels as real and menacing as it is outlandish and stylized. Flanagan lets the movie go on typical King detours, the rising action building fleeting, memorable vignettes with characters we may or may not see again: townspeople with whole lives fleshed out in a single scene; sympathetic victims compassionately portrayed before their inevitable tragic ends; compelling amoral figures whose backstories were as fraught as our heroes' before they took a different path. But captured in a tightly controlled mood, patient cutting, and icy-warm cinematography, it’s always building to a crescendo equal parts nostalgia, catharsis, and room to grow. If it will have the classic status of its predecessor remains to be seen. But what a finely crafted, satisfying film in its own right.

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