Cast: Ewan McGregor (Danny Torrance), Kyliegh Curran (Abra Stone), Rebecca Ferguson (Rose the Hat), Zahn McClarnon (Crow Daddy), Bruce Greenwood (Dr. John), Carel Struycken (Grampa Flick), Emily Alyn Lind (Snakebite Andi), Jacob Tremblay (Bradley Trevor)
Director: Mike Flanagan
Writer (based on the novel by): Stephen King
Writer: Mike Flanagan
Cinematographer: Michael Fimognari
Editor: Mike Flanagan
Composer: The Newton Brothers
Rating: R for disturbing and violent content, some bloody images, language, nudity and drug use.
Run Time: 152 minutes
As an adaption of Stephen King’s eponymous novel and a sequel to Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, Mike Flanagan’s Doctor Sleep does enough right to elevate it above the horror genre’s typical fare. Flanagan’s film faces an imposing task that critics should weigh in their scales: to satisfy both fans of King’s novels and fans of Kubrick’s cinematic classic, despite King’s notorious dislike of the Kubrick adaptation. Put another way, does Doctor Sleep manage to straddle the line between slavish homage and irreverent retread? At times, yes, and at times, no. Ultimately, I liked Doctor Sleep, even though it rarely rises to the heights of its superior predecessor.
Doctor Sleep picks up right where The Shining left off. Young Danny “Doc” Torrence (Roger Dale Floyd) is terrorized by the traumatic events that consumed his father, Jack Torrence (Jack Nicholson in Kubrick’s film), at the Overlook Hotel. Dick Halloran (Carl Lumbly, taking over the role from Scatman Crothers), the hotel chef gifted with preternatural powers he terms the “shine” and who identifies the same paranormal abilities in Danny, teaches the troubled boy how to stave off the specters of the past by imprisoning them in his mind. When Danny is reintroduced as an adult, “Dan” (Ewan McGregor) is a drunkard boozing the pain of his past away. The film is surprisingly frank about our protagonist’s depravity at this point in his life — we see Dan smash a man’s head in with a pool ball, snort lines with and bed a coked-out single mother, and attempt to steal the woman’s money in front her toddler while her overdosed body lies face-down in vomit the next room over.
Dan commits to lifting himself up when he hops a bus to New Hampshire, meets a new friend, Billy (Cliff Curtis), joins Alcoholics Anonymous, and lands a gig at a hospice. Flanagan portrays Dan’s efforts to turn his life around with touching poignancy, as Dan uses his supernatural gifts to ease the dying into a soporific death and earn the nickname “Doctor Sleep.” The transition to Dan’s redemption arc from the steep depths we’ve seen him stoop to only a few scenes before is jarring, but there is a sincere delicacy given to Dan’s good works by Flanagan’s directing and McGregor’s acting that is nonetheless moving and could have been bungled in less sensitive or patient hands.
Dan’s empathetic character development is contrasted with the introduction of the film’s Manson-esque antagonists. The rag-tag group of pseudo-immortals, helmed by a seductively charismatic leader named Rose the Hat (Rebecca Ferguson), call themselves the “True Knot” and rove around in search of “steam,” a life-giving essence they cannibalize from the fear and pain of those who shine. It is cliché for the villains to “eat” and “drink” human suffering and the portrayal of this feeding process on screen occasionally bleeds into unintentional comedy and cringe, but for the most part, Rose and gang’s ravenous hunger is effectively creepy. One scene in particular stands out as downright disturbing — the bohemian killers taking their time knifing a young boy (Jacob Tremblay) to prolong his distress and thereby increase the rejuvenating rewards of his death. Moments like these exhibit the film’s strengths in conveying suspense less through conventional jump scares and other sucker punches and more through unsettling imagery and atmosphere.
Dan begins to communicate psychically with Abra (Kyliegh Curran), a young girl with an extremely powerful shine. Abra’s potency attracts the attention of the True Knot, who want to either feed on Abra to survive or conscript her into their ranks. Abra seeks help from Dan after sensing the danger she is in and the two supernaturals face off against their pursuers in a series of confrontations that culminate in a final showdown at the place where it all began. Here, in territory familiar to those who have seen The Shining, audiences may split over whether or not the reuse of iconic imagery such as blood gushing out of elevators and deadpan twin sisters chanting in eery unison constitutes a respectful nod to a classic film or a flagrant bid to fill time. For myself, I may have checked my watch once or twice.
Beyond the not altogether successful tightrope performance it tries to pull off, Doctor Sleep is hamstrung by a few other faults. The CGI in the film is more effective in some scenes than in others; a sequence involving global astral projection and an unsettling facial transformation exemplifies the two poles of quality between which the digital effects in the film swing. Some of the dialogue is stale and bloodless, as when the misandrist Snakebite Andi (Emily Alyn Lind) hisses “Men” at one of her male victims, or becomes frustratingly repetitive (prepare to hear Rose intone promiscuously “well, hello there” over and over). The characters act remarkably illogical in a few instances, which will likely defy viewer’s sense of belief. A gun fight scene comes to mind in which I was internally raging at a character’s nonsensical decision to prolong the threat to another’s character’s life for no apparent reason.
But even so, Flanagan does manage to capture some of the spirit and stylistic flourishes that set the tone of The Shining and make that film as memorable as it continues to be. From the plodding ominousness of “Dies Irae” to thought-provoking themes that meditate on how individuals grapple with guilt, death, and the unknown to even the way scenes transition into each other with characters’ voices floating over and through them like ghostly wisps of life, Doctor Sleep generally feels like an extension of The Shining in all the right ways. Moreover, it both acknowledges and develops the lore established in The Shining, leaving viewers with something more than just cheap, nostalgic thrills. The result is a satisfying and rewarding experience for those who can temper their expectations and be led, sometimes patiently, back into the world crafted by King and put to screen by Kubrick almost forty years ago.