Courtney Howard is a LAFCA, CCA, OFCS and AWFJ member, as well as a Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic. Her work has been published on Variety, She Knows and Awards Circuit.
Courtney Howard // Film Critc
In director Mike Flanagan’s DOCTOR SLEEP, the protagonist attempts to reconcile his past and present – much as Flanagan himself attempts to reconcile past works with his present film. No pressure: those previous works are merely legendary author Stephen King’s masterpiece novel The Shining and legendary auteur Stanley Kubrick’s iconic big-screen version of the same. Fortunately, Flanagan and his team are up to the task, crafting a worthy adaptation of King’s supernatural sequel.
Flanagan’s hallucinogenic horror-scape artfully channels King’s waking nightmares and familial trauma. He taps into both books’ terrors spawned by substance abuse, something Kubrick’s film only alluded to in subtleties. He crafts visceral, disquieting dread not too dissimilar to Kubrick’s film with obvious homages and obscure nods. The picture’s austere tone augments the bold, bone-chilling set pieces that haunt the audience long after the credits roll.
Young Danny Torrance (Roger Dale Floyd) was scarred psychologically by the events at the snow-covered Overlook Hotel in 1980. It robbed him of an angry, abusive father, but at the same time, revealed his psychic ability called “the shining.” Not only was he forced to cope with the trauma of this terrifying experience, but he also had to learn to navigate this latent skillset, literally locking away the ghosts who continue to stalk him. As an adult, however, Dan (Ewan McGregor) begins to view this gift more like a curse, seeing his mom pass away and glimpsing his dad’s demons in himself – particularly his penchant for rage and substance abuse. It serves as a painful reminder of the not-terribly-distant past.
Dan’s rock bottom soon hits (culminating in a very un-“Save the cat”-like decision), causing him to uproot his life in favor of sober living in a small town in New Hampshire. New pal Billy Freeman (Cliff Curtis) sets him up in a quiet apartment, and Dan gets a job at a hospice in town, easing the elderly patients into a restful final sleep. It would seem he’s found the peace he’s craved for decades.
Yet there’s a threat that’s been gestating for many years: the True Knot. This ragtag gang of super sexy soul-suckers, led by Rose the Hat (Rebecca Ferguson) and her right-hand man Crow Daddy (Zahn McClarnon), feed on kids with “the shine.” The carney-like caravan traverses the States feasting on their “steam” to stay alive and young, though not immortal. Their latest target is Abra (Kyliegh Curran), an intelligent, strong-willed teen who’s been telepathically communicating with Dan. It becomes clear that Dan’s redemptive challenge is to protect Abra at all costs and, in the process, pass along his knowledge to her.
Just as Dan’s journey becomes more immersive as the run time ticks by, Flanagan’s reverent homage slowly ramps up the pace before diving into the deep end during the climax. He utilizes look-a-like, sound-a-like, but never digitally-manipulated actors playing the indelible roles from the 1980 predecessor, resulting in delightfully unsettling versions of the characters that reflect Dan’s psychologically disfigured memories.
Carl Lumbly lovingly channels Scatman Crothers’ Dick Hallorann, who becomes a Jiminy Cricket-like presence for Dan, but also fashions his own poignant facets within the character. Maher Ahmad’s production design respectfully replicates Roy Walker’s from Kubrick’s film – not solely in the scenes set at the now-decaying Overlook, but also in Dr. John Dalten’s (Bruce Greenwood) office and Abra’s home with its totem-esque drawings on the family fridge. Acting as his own editor, Flanagan occasionally utilizes similar fades as the previous installment, slowly transitioning from one character-driven scene to the next.
Naturally, there are a few set pieces that stray from the Kubrickian influences. All of this is justified, of course, as it keeps the propulsive forces moving and provides palpable stakes for the characters in this creepy playground. We’re privy to how the sausage gets made, showing how members of the True Knot are created and also how they expire.
Rose the Hat meditating, telepathically locating Abra is a terrifically trippy, ethereal effects-driven sequence where perspectives physically shift. A shootout in the woods between a bunch of baddies and a few heroes is more akin to an action film. Things also get gloriously gory and intense during the narrative’s fulcrum – so much so, it’s almost guaranteed to leave audiences squirming.
On top of this, McGregor and Ferguson give perfectly pitched performances. McGregor finds a sympathetic string to tether us to the beloved, rootable character even in his lowest moments. Ferguson is deliciously wicked as the evil foe. Her cat-like prowl, combined with her boho/rocker chic wardrobe, offers thrills aplenty. There’s a lot of sex appeal oozing from this picture’s pores, from the penetrating erotic overtones of Rose and Dan’s confrontation on the stairs of the Overlook to the orgy-like choreography of the True Knot’s vampiric ritual of stealing youths’ steam.
Perhaps the most significant elements fused into the narrative are the subtle lessons about learning to confront and cope with our fears and failings. It’s a theme familiar to Flanagan, threaded throughout his other masterful works. Here, it’s made more fervent when complemented by enlightened, metaphorical sentiments about modern technological distractions that serve to dim our lights and further demonstrated by the damaged souls who exist solely to steal the life-force from others. Horrors are now not only found within ourselves, but they’ve manifested within other forces. And there’s nothing more frightening than that.
DOCTOR SLEEP opens on November 8.