On dreams and nightmares, normality as a fatal flaw, and the great but misguided idea inside Before I Wake
Before I Wake Netflix
Director: Mike Flanagan
Screenplay: Mike Flanagan and Jeff Howard
Starring: Kate Bosworth, Jacob Tremblay, Thomas Jane, Annabeth Gish, Jay Karnes and Dash Mihok
Rated PG-13 / 1 hour, 37 minutes / 2.35:1
January 5, 2018
(out of four)
From simply observing most of Before I Wake - looking around its images, watching its characters' behavior, listening in on their conversations - you'd never get the sense that anything truly unusual was taking place. Sure, the frazzled suburban couple keeps talking about some strange power their new foster child possesses, and that foster child keeps mentioning something about a monster, and on occasion thousands of butterflies appear in the house in the middle of the night and then abruptly disappear. But everybody seems awfully cool about it.
A movie about a child whose dreams and nightmares come to life - alternately enchanting or terrorizing those in his vicinity - should not feel so routine. Eight-year-old Cody (Room's Jacob Tremblay) has had this ability his entire life, but his conjured projections have a life of their own - they are completely beyond his control. And yet it all feels so completely controlled. It's all coming involuntarily from one character's subconscious, yet it doesn't feel like reflections of any particular psyche. Instead it comes across like a sort of magic trick, which everyone kind of inexplicably accepts, practically unfazed.
This is a key frustration in the work of director Mike Flanagan, and it's one I've had a hard time putting my finger on. He's an exceedingly capable filmmaker with good ideas, and his work sometimes achieves a real beauty. And yet his movies feel too damn normal. Over the last several years, he's worked exclusively in horror (albeit across various strains of it), and thus deals in the supernatural and the inexplicable. And yet his movies are ... all too explicable? And too explained. Horror works on such a unique, intangible level, but his version always seems like it's playing by boring-ass real-world guidelines. He's a rationalist working in an irrational space. The extraordinary has a nasty habit of invading on the ordinary, and many filmmakers have memorably exploited that dichotomy. But Flanagan's approach is to almost instantly make the extraordinary ordinary - almost as if that's his only way of dealing with it, lest the concept run away with itself. His films are never surreal, nor disorienting, nor alienating. Lovely, sometimes; scary, on occasion. But unusual or aesthetically distinct, never.
Perhaps the best example of this is Hush, which in its depiction of a would-be home invasion (by a sadistic goon who would rather take his time and taunt the solitary victim from outside before actually breaking in) from the point-of-view of a deaf-mute, directly calls for a radical formal experiment. And with a couple of early scenes, it even seems like it might be going for just that. But instead, it quickly devolves into a very pedestrian approach that basically negates the entire point-of-view hook, and ignores almost all of the possibilities it offers. He has good ideas - but Hush demonstrates a filmmaker unwilling or unable to deliver the aesthetic boldness or personality to do them justice.
His 2014 film Oculus was about a haunted mirror that manipulates perception and kills people, and his approach to this was to build a narrative in which the rules governing the mirror (and its abilities) were constantly explained, reinforced, and put to the test. It never settled in as a visceral threat because our main character (and expository mouthpiece) was only concerned with illustrating the elaborate rulebook that told us what the mirror could do, and when, and how. Explaining the inexplicable.
The terrible, literal-minded coda of last year's Gerald's Game is, in retrospect, perfect for Flanagan, because it's exactly the type of thing he would gravitate toward. Of course he would want a literal explanation for the symbolic figure that hovers around the periphery of the story. Of course he would.
Which brings me to this: There is an unknown secret to Cody's dreams in Before I Wake, relating both to the monster that comes out when his nightmares are at their worst - and whose presence he goes to great lengths to avoid, given the very specific carnage it has left in its wake in front of Cody's eyes - and to the roots of fear itself. The idea, once it has all been explained, is actually kind of ingenious. In a vacuum, anyway. As a component of a horror movie - an emotionally climactic one, no less - I'm not quite as certain.
Though the specifics are very different, it reminded me of the big twist in The Village - which is abominable in execution but, as an idea on its own, is fascinating. And could definitely have worked if applied any number of ways other than the way Shyamalan deployed it in that film. The explanation at the heart of Before I Wake isn't quite as bad, but it also falls right in line with the film's - and Flanagan's - problem of literal-mindedness. That for a second it almost works on emotional and conceptual level is a testament to his strength as a conceiver of ideas, and to his sensitivity with his cast (in particular Tremblay, who actually shot this prior to Room, before the film was delayed due to distributor issues).
So, I do think the idea this story lands on could work in the right circumstances. But the way it plays out here only further reinforces Flanagan's inability to find any real psychological or expressionistic footing. The ending serves to, in a sense, normalize that which scares and haunts and even kills us - but the rest of the film had made that all come across so normal, so quotidian, already. He tidily resolves the film's story and themes without ever fully earning the journey.
But again, as with all of Flanagan's other films (at least of what I've seen, which is everything since and including Oculus), there are certainly other merits. Using at its starting point a couple still grieving the loss of their son, Before I Wake is a sincere attempt to probe how people process grief, or even understand the nature of it. They're thrilled to welcome this new foster child into their home - but dealing with the absence of Sean, who was Cody's age when he died, remains an ongoing process. When they discover what Cody's subconscious can do - which explains why he has that stash of pills and caffeinated beverages under his bed, desperately trying to stay awake and keep anything bad from happening again - the film goes in a grimly comic direction that it doesn't quite know what to do with. Jessie (Kate Bosworth) shows Cody home videos of Sean and then makes sure he gets a good night's sleep, and lo and behold, Sean shows up that night just as Cody shuts his eyes for good.
These projected dreams have physical mass, but only during the moments Cody is under; when he wakes up, they evaporate in a snap. In both the early, tranquil dreams that Jessie and Mark (Thomas Jane, dutifully wearing his long, disheveled, Grieving Father hair) experience (a swarm of butterflies, a half-remembered Christmas morning) and the more elaborate nightmares that eventually take their place, the film benefits from strong production design and a couple of particularly eerie visual concepts. But even those strengths can't break through the flavorless competence of the direction. These dreams and fantasies and horrors always feel like they're externally manufactured rather than dreamed into existence from someone's subconscious; like Ouija: Origin of Evil before it, its setpieces play like well-staged funchouse installations instead of visceral terrors. It's simply too level-headed. As a viewer, I found myself wishing Before I Wake had been written and directed under the influence of powerful narcotics. I didn't expect to end this review with a pro-drug PSA, but I guess here we are.