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

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.


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