“They come back.”
At its core, Doctor Sleep takes Stephen King’s novel (which I admittedly have not read) and flips the pages into a supernatural horror story built for the screen, showcasing how the demons manifested in the mind can be more detrimental than any worldly foe. And while it can teeter on the edge of shocking violence, the film rarely resorts to blood and guts, ditching the typical genre tropes for terrors that linger around in the subconscious. For some folks the most frightening face they’ll ever come across is the one staring back at them in the mirror. Doctor Sleep sits there, looking hard and long and deep. It’s a self help therapy session in the form of a movie.
Decades removed from his nightmarish days at the Overlook Hotel, Danny Torrance (Ewan McGregor) is now an addled alcoholic, numbing the powers of his magical “shine” and suppressing the ghosts of his past one empty bottle after another. He’s a disheveled drunkard, only remembering last night’s bar fight during next morning’s confused stupor, waking up next to women he’s slept with but doesn’t actually know. This is his self- prescribed medication, his own downward spiral of a cycle, which is also the main overall thematic component of the film. Doctor Sleep explores the cyclical, predatory, genetic nature of depression and addiction. And in those rare cases where darkness finds the light at the end of the tunnel, to tell a story about recovery and sacrifice.
Maybe that’s why Danny inexplicably boards a bus, landing on his wobbly two feet in New Hampshire, sobering up with the help of his new friend Billy (Cliff Curtis), a man who sees in Danny all of the things he once loathed about himself. Doctor Sleep takes its time getting to this point, weaving together multiple storylines with great pacing and developing rich characters. Danny has a telepathic, Uncle-like correspondence with Abra (Kyliegh Curran), a teen with the “shine” of a rare diamond. Abra’s power are uncommon in the modern world, catching the attention of a vagabond group known as The True Knot. Led by Rose The Hat (an enchanting Rebecca Ferguson), the similarly supernatural beings feast on those who shine, inflicting pain and consuming the “steam” released by their souls in order to remain youthful. They didn’t catch Danny’s trail because a few learned tricks, and all the liquor as an adult, dulled his scent. But Abra can’t be missed.
While Doctor Sleep is a far cry from the coldly calculated nature of Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, writer/director Mike Flanagan nonetheless manages to capture Stephen King’s affinity for the paranormal in a way that respects the author’s style and the visual stamp already signed, sealed and delivered by Kubrick’s iconic 1980 picture. There are numerous callbacks, recreated visuals, and a great eye for detail as we check into the Overlook again, evolving from a condemned and sprawling space into one that’s both new and old all at once. I still can’t believe that the final act works as well as it does. But then again, Flanagan only continues to cement himself as a storyteller worth listening to. He knows how to use tone and time to create something full of meaning beyond the surface level. It’s an outwardly wacky piece of entertainment that makes you think inwards.
I’m sure it could have been shorter, and that some trimming – especially time spent with one-dimensional members of The True Knot – would’ve expedited the entire endeavor, possibly giving way to a smoother segue into the last act of the script. Yet having said that, Doctor Sleep may very well be my favorite big-budget horror film of 2019, precisely because it layers the psychological trauma of its characters with great empathy and a surprising sense of humor. It’s not a frightening film, relying more on menace and malice than easy jump scares, and instead of searching for a remedy from the comfort of a therapist’s couch, Doctor Sleep gets on its feet and faces its demons head on. That method isn’t for everyone, but it sure is a brave, corrective step in the right direction. The darkest depths of the mind can feel like hell, and Flanagan somehow manages to take those recesses seriously while still having all the fun of a grade school recess. Doctor Sleep works and plays better than I could have imagined. This one ain’t dull. It shines.
“I think the only difference between you and me is time.”
Rating: 4 out of 5