What could have been a great psychological drama about loss and healing turns out to be a frustrating and tonal mess after a promising beginning
Before I Wake (2016)
Directed by Mike Flanagan. Written by Mike Flanagan and Jeff Howard. Starring Kate Bosworth, Thomas Jane, Jacob Tremblay, Annabeth Gish, Topher Bousquet and Dash Mihok.
Being a diehard fan of cult series The X‑Files such as I am, it is almost impossible for me to watch Before I Wake, this new supernatural thriller by Mike Flanagan (Oculus, Hush), and not be struck by its evident similarities with a certain episode of that classic TV show. Not that this is surprising, really. It has become harder and harder to find true originality in movies that deal with paranormal phenomena — especially horror movies which tend to reuse old concepts — and the fact that this film also stars Annabeth Gish (who played FBI agent Monica Reyes in that show) makes this kind of comparison all the more inevitable.
The episode in question, called “Scary Monsters,” had a very similar concept, about a weird boy whose strong imagination manifested in physical reality. In Flanagan’s movie, there is also a boy like that, only his power manifests through his dreams when he is asleep. What makes me really glad is that the comparison ends there, since Flanagan goes for a completely different approach and is more interested in creating a psychological drama about fear, loss and healing. It actually feels like he took the basis of that episode and blended it with Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris (1972) as a framework for his own ideas. The only problem is that he never makes it clear whether he wants it to be a psychological drama, a supernatural fantasy or a horror movie, and so the whole thing becomes a tonal mess after a promising beginning.
Written by Flanagan and Jeff Howard — who also co-wrote his great Oculus (2013) — Before I Wake follows married couple Jessie (Kate Bosworth) and Mark (Thomas Jane) who decide to adopt sweet 8‑year-old boy Cody (Jacob Tremblay) after their own son’s death in a tragic accident. Cody is terrified of sleeping, and it doesn’t take long for the couple to realize that when he is asleep, strange things start to appear. They are visited by a kaleidoscope of butterflies (the boy loves them), and Jessie soon embraces this magical opportunity to be in contact again with her lost child. But what she doesn’t realize is that a child’s mind is not only full of magic but also fears and that her selfish determination can lead to a horrific nightmare.
With such intriguing premise, the first half of the film is easily the best. We see Jessie struggling to overcome the sorrow she feels, and there is even a character who offers a perfectly plausible explanation for how a sleep-deprived person can see things that are not real. At some point, it is easy to wonder if what she is beginning to experience is only a product of her tired mind. Flanagan is not in a hurry, and so he takes his time to let us care about these people and the fact that they just want a new chance in life to be happy again. This is something we can all relate to, and Before I Wake is quite effective in the way it uses a supernatural element as a narrative device to discuss human nature — something that Solaris also did.
That is, until the movie is sabotaged by a bizarre twist halfway through when we see people literally vanish into thin air after being attacked by a monster that Cody calls “The Canker Man.” It makes no sense from any perspective (though we know this is a movie) and seems more like an excuse to justify that no dead bodies have ever been left behind in Cody’s previous homes. Even worse is how the movie’s central message comes off as horribly selfish in the end (I’ll come back to that in more details later), while the whole explanation about the monster’s existence and physical appearance sounds forced and makes the movie convoluted, with “profound” written all over it. Like I always say, sometimes less is more.
Flanagan’s direction is also sadly flawed. Whereas in Oculus and Hush (2016) he was able to keep us always tense by confusing the present with the past (in the former) or by exploring the limitations created by the character’s physical disability (in the latter), here everything is more clichéd. Rooms are usually too dark, leaving the actors’ faces half in shadows (why can’t anyone turn the lights on?), we have creepy bathtubs (my God, until when?) and, of course, there are loud noises to throw us off our chairs — though it is great that he doesn’t overuse them. But the main problem is that after a while, he seems like he is trying to combine two different movies in one, and that unfortunately makes Before I Wake uneven in terms of tone and mood.
And that is a real pity, especially considering the talent of Jacob Tremblay, star of the excellent Oscar-nominated film Room (2015). He stands out in the good cast, always so adorable and embodying the innocence of childhood — and I’m so relieved that he doesn’t play one of those annoying creepy kids of horror movies. But if there is a serious problem with Before I Wake, it is how it shockingly decides to follow the example of Peter Jackson’s awful The Lovely Bones (2009) with a similar message in the end about the importance of moving on and accepting tragedy as part of life. After everything that we have seen happen up to that point, it is not only tremendously selfish (from the point of view of Jessie), but especially incoherent and frustrating.
Stupid enough to try to convince us that someone could just come in and leave with a kid from social care without any consequence, Before I Wake is at least a minor misstep for Flanagan, who is for sure one of the most interesting genre filmmakers at the moment. Let me just hope that his Ouija: Origin of Evil (also released in 2016 and which I haven’t seen yet) will make me continue admiring his work after this one.