Doctor Sleep (2019)

Author: Brett Gallman
Submitted by: Brett Gallman   Date : 2019-11-12 03:05

Written by: Mike Flanagan (screenplay), Stephen King (novel)
Directed by: Mike Flanagan
Starring: Ewan McGregor, Kyliegh Curran, and Rebecca Ferguson

Reviewed by: Brett Gallman

“The world's a hungry place. A dark place."

I can think of few propositions as bold as Doctor Sleep: here’s Mike Flanagan adapting Stephen King’s oddball follow-up to The Shining into a sequel to Stanley Kubrick’s singular—and quite unfaithful—take on the original novel. I say this because, for one thing, it’s a sequel to the motherfucking Shining, here arriving nearly 40 years later. You’d have to have temerity visible from outer space to even consider this undertaking. And for another, Flanagan is among the last names you’d expect to follow in the footsteps of Kubrick—not necessarily because of his talents (which are immense), but because his brand of heart-on-its-sleeve, sentimental horror is completely at odds with Kubrick’s renowned iciness. The Shining is arguably the most prominent monument to Kubrick’s detached, meticulous approach: it’s a bitterly cold, unfeeling piece of work that largely strips the humanity that guides King’s novel, so much so that the author has made his distaste for it known for four decades now.

As such, I suppose this actually makes Flanagan the perfect candidate to helm Doctor Sleep. Even without taking his triumphant adaptation of the tricky Gerald’s Game into account, Flanagan often excels at putting emotional stakes at the forefront of his horror films with a trademark sincerity that’s at odds with the bleak, nihilistic fabric patterned throughout Kubrick’s film. If anyone could bridge the gap between King’s poignant novel and its misanthropic adaptation, it’d surely be Flanagan, and Doctor Sleep bears this out. It not only deftly adapts King’s somewhat silly sequel novel, but it also elevates it into a reckoning of sorts: this is a follow-up that’s consumed by the notion of grappling with unwanted legacies, both on the screen and beyond it. Doctor Sleep is a tale of redemption for both its characters and its creator, which sounds goddamn wild and perhaps even blasphemous, but it’s true: this is an impossibly heartfelt, emotionally resonant sequel that revises, reclaims, and honors the various visions of The Shining all at once. Even if it didn’t work at all—and it very much does—it’d be one of the most fascinating projects in recent memory.

Far from its claustrophobic, insular predecessor, Doctor Sleep sprawls across both time and distance to catch up with Danny Torrance (Roger Dale Floyd). Months after surviving the ordeal at The Overlook, he—with the guidance of the Dick Hallorann’s spirit (Carl Lumbly)—locks away the hotel’s monstrous spirits that continue to haunt him. Three decades later, he’s haunted in a different sense: now an aimless alcoholic, the adult Dan Torrance (Ewan McGregor) threatens to stumble in his father’s destructive footsteps before a random moment of clarity sends him to a small New Hampshire town. Almost instantly, he's befriended by Billy Freeman (Cliff Curtis), a kind local who recognizes the look of desperation in Danny’s eyes and offers a helping hand. Before long, Danny has a nice room, a steady job, and an Alcoholics Anonymous support group.

Danny rewards Billy’s faith with eight years of sobriety, during which he finds purpose as an orderly at a local hospice. After suppressing his shine for years, it comes his tool for providing comfort to patients in their dying moments, earning him the nickname "Doctor Sleep." Embracing his preternatural skills also brings him into contact with fellow clairvoyant Abra Stone (Kyliegh Curran), an adolescent girl whose playful back-and-forth chatter with Danny becomes urgent and sinister when her telepathic wanderings bring her into contact with The True Knot, a cult of semi-vampiric psychopaths who feed on the lifeforce those who possess the shine.

Taking one look at the basic plot of Doctor Sleep also reveals why an adaptation is such a daunting task. When King originally announced that he’d write a sequel to The Shining—a book about the figurative and literal ghosts haunting a family during a hellish winter—I doubt anyone guessed it would involve vampiric creatures riding across America in a caravan of RVs, feasting upon small children while Danny Torrance forges a bond with a young kid and attempts to thwart the vicious cult. You’re tempted to dismiss it as being too strange and alienating to be an effective follow-up before you realize it’s just about the most Stephen King shit imaginable. Most of the man’s “conventional” tales don’t unfold in a straight line, so it follows that this rare sequel strays quite far from the expected path, so much so that it takes a minute to make peace with the strange premise. Had this tale not originated from King’s own imagination, it might even feel like a gratuitous, exploitative sequel looking to cash in on one of the pillars of horror fiction.

With Flanagan at the helm of the adaptation, these concerns are easily dispelled, though. What’s great is that he doesn’t shy away from the strangeness of King’s story, nor does he try to “ground” it; rather, he embraces the hell out of it and downright luxuriates in it. Clocking in at 152 minutes, Doctor Sleep dares to be even longer than Kubrick’s epic. Flanagan spends his time much differently, too: where The Shining’s length doubles as an immense weight bearing down on a suffocating crucible of horror, Doctor Sleep’s runtime allows Flanagan to do his due diligence for a larger set of characters who spend much of the film separated from each other before they converge for some climactic confrontations.

Flanagan’s script doesn’t short change any of them, either. While Dan is obviously the film’s empathetic center, it boasts a rich tapestry of characters, including the villains, who probably appear on-screen about as much as the protagonists. The True Knot are a compelling bunch, lead by Rose the Hat (Rebecca Ferguson), an enigmatic seductress capable of disarming targets with her sing-song voice. Ferguson portrays her as a sly fox-in-the-henhouse, deviously preying upon unwitting targets. She isn’t the sort of immortal being who’s tortured by her prolonged existence; rather, she’s rather drunk on the prospect of immortality and gorging on the “steam” she extracts from her victims. Her magnetism is undeniable: any time she’s on the screen, Ferguson is a commanding, uniquely terrifying presence. Danger lurks in every wayward glance and every word she utters; after centuries of living, she’s become all ravenous desire, her thirst for more power guiding her every move. I left Doctor Sleep with the overwhelming feeling that I would absolutely watch an entire prequel film dedicated to her exploits.

The same is true of her makeshift family, which boasts a wonderful assortment of colorful character actors, like Carel Struycken, Zahn McClarnon, and Robert Longstreet. Flanagan gives you a sense of their familial ties: yes, these are damned, unholy creatures committing unspeakable acts of violence, but there’s something naturally fascinating about them thanks to some very lived-in performances that make these characters feel truly alive. Look no further than the extended sequence where the cult targets and turns Snakebite Andi (Emily Alyn Lind), a 15-year-old girl who uses her supernatural power of suggestion to prey upon lecherous perverts. In the grand scheme of the plot, it’s not the most crucial aside, but it’s key in just giving this bunch some space to become more rounded characters. There’s definitely a version of Doctor Sleep where the True Knot simply functions as one-note villains who only exist to drive the plot. Flanagan’s much better than that, though, as he honors King’s insistence upon foregrounding rich character work.

This is most evident in Doctor Sleep’s depiction of Danny Torrance. As cool as the True Knot are as villains, Danny is equally compelling as their foil, so much so that I would willingly watch a take on this story that simply focuses on his journey towards escaping the horrific shadows of his past. Over half of the film is just that, anyway: he doesn’t become aware of the True Knot until well into the film and doesn’t share the screen with them until the third act. Again, a more hackneyed take on Doctor Sleep would be in a rush to just mash each side together; Flanagan is patient, however, and invests a proper amount of time in Danny’s plight as a human being. When we meet him, he’s a disheveled mess, waking up in a bed full of puke following a one-night stand, only to discover the woman passed out next to him stole his money. His natural impulse is to steal her money in return before Dick Hallorann provides a voice of conscience and insists he return the money since she has an obviously neglected child. (Side note: it’s never a good idea to be a neglected infant in a movie where Ewan McGregor plays a strung-out addict.)

This exchange leads to Danny’s stark realization that he has to get his shit together, and McGregor masterfully captures the innate goodness of this broken man. A character like adult Dan Torrance is tricky: he’s clearly not in a good place, and the sins of that one-night stand pointedly return to haunt him soon thereafter. I think we all would like to believe we could be like Billy Freeman, offering help without judgment to a stranger fresh off the bus in our hometown; in reality, Dan Torrance probably looks a lot like the wayward souls we encounter but choose to overlook. It says a lot, then, that McGregor effortlessly inhabits this tough role and makes Danny immediately sympathetic. Sure, it helps that we know his traumatic history and that he’s bearing the weight of horrors nobody should experience, much less as a 5-year-old. However, there’s an innate decency in McGregor’s turn that begs for some sort of grace—simply put, you want to see this guy succeed, even if he has not been living the most noble of lives.

King, of course, is deeply familiar with this, as his career has been littered with semi-autobiographical tales of recovering addicts seeking some semblance of redemption. Doctor Sleep is no different, and Flanagan’s greatest triumph here is recognizing that this is the story: Dan Torrance finding some kind of grace as a sort of kindly ferryman of souls to the beyond and in his connection with Abra, which allows him to find meaning in his extraordinary abilities. At its heart, Doctor Sleep is a film about simple kindness and doing the right thing, whether it’s lending a helping hand to an addict, helping someone cope with unwanted burdens, or even trying to vanquish a pack of bloodthirsty immortals from the face of the earth. While that last, supernatural bit is obviously the expectation with most of King’s work, it’s not the most essential component here. More potent are the relationships Dan forges on his path to salvation; in fact, I would also watch an entire movie about Dan and Billy rescuing fellow addicts, or even an entire movie about him and Abra seeking out fellow psychics. Curtis and Curran are both instrumental in providing even more emotional stakes for the climatic showdowns with the True Knot, which are loaded with tension since the audience has spent the better part of a 100 minutes with all the parties involved before they finally collide for two wonderfully staged set-pieces. (Spoilers from this point on.)

One of these is obvious and may as well have been pre-ordained the moment King set out to write a sequel to The Shining. While the details here are obviously different since Kubrick kept The Overlook intact at the end of his film, the film climaxes with a return to the infamous locale, now abandoned and boarded up but no less imposing as it lords like a sleeping ghost atop the desolate Rockies. Flanagan remains patient even here by allowing a moment for Dan to explore the calm before the storm when he enters the hotel to “wake it up,” in turn allowing the audience to stroll through a demented memory lane. The iconic Shining theme swells as Dan stalks through the iconic set from the original film, haunted by memories that have been etched into the horror canon.

Rather than indulge the most obvious impulse and simply mine this for a twisted form of nostalgia, Flanagan instead envisions this calm before the storm as a space to re-center Dan’s trauma and recovery at the heart of the story. The déjà vu we experience as we watch him literally retrace his mad father’s footsteps is much more ominous than it is wistful, reminding the audience that this is the real menace for Dan Torrance: becoming the same monster as his father, consumed by pent-up rage and resentment as the Overlook works its dark, sinister magic. Doctor Sleep finds an obvious but pitch-perfect moment of convergence for its various influences: King’s original novel, Kubrick’s take, and Flanagan’s unifying, conciliatory vision for a sequel that mends both of them together in unexpectedly poignant fashion.

Once Dan awakens The Overlook, it unleashes its horrors once again in the form of familiar spirits that finally tip the film over to the pure, unrelenting horror of Kubrick’s film. The climactic stretch feels like what you’d expect from a sequel to The Shining, with its roaring torrents of blood, the Grady sisters, and even an axe-wielding maniac. However, Flanagan again sees this as an opportunity to do more than simply reconjure Kubrick’s ghosts, as he cleverly rectifies the latter’s film with a bit of meta-fictional déjà vu. By invoking King’s original ending to The Shining, Flanagan restores the human component that Kubrick’s film lacks. Obviously, such an approach is sure to be divisive: I can’t begrudge anyone who considers this heretical because, again, it’s bold as hell to even approach a monolith like The Shining, much less revise it. Dismissing such an act wouldn’t be out-of-bounds, but this Constant Reader found the film perceptive and moving in its insistence that trauma never truly vanquished. Rather, it passes from generation to the next to be confronted and locked away by the best of our abilities. It’s something we have to live with and can only be overcome with guidance and support—even if it comes from a supernatural plane, as it does in this case. It's a potent reminder that King's work believes in humanity as much as it does monsters.

I also found the film’s interplay with its predecessor to be fascinating. By the end of the film, Dan’s effort to rid himself of ghosts mirrors Flanagan’s act of cinematic exorcism on behalf of King, effectively dispelling the lingering spirits surrounding Kubrick’s film and essentially reclaiming this mythos for the author. My mind naturally nags with the notion that this might be somewhat blasphemous: here’s a film attaching itself to (and revising) the legacy of a masterwork whose director passed away 20 years ago. And yet, it must be said that Kubrick’s own treatment of King’s novel opens a similar dialogue surrounding the fealty of adaptations, a notion with which Doctor Sleep deftly wrestles. Like King, it would seem that Flanagan perhaps finds Kubrick’s Shining to be icy and alienating, making his own film an act of redemption in its own right. Again, maybe that will alienate Kubrick devotees, but the result here is a duology with few peers in the horror genre. Both The Shining and Doctor Sleep are masterful in their own, particular way and truly couldn’t feel more different from each other. And yet, that’s exactly what makes them perfect compliments: just as Dan Torrance finds grace and reconciliation, so too do these warring visions of The Shining.

We sometimes throw around the word “miracle” a bit too hastily, but I can’t help to think that Doctor Sleep qualifies as one. With the deck firmly stacked against him, Flanagan takes a big, heartfelt swing that resounds well after the credits have rolled. Forgetting for a moment that this is also a sequel to Kubrick’s film, it’s a triumphant adaptation of a weird, wild book: at times, Doctor Sleep indulges Dreamcatcher-level nonsense, and Flanagan looks it right into the eyes before translating it to the screen without so much as blinking. Psychic battles unfold across astral planes, vampiric lunatics feast upon multiple children in brutal, unflinching fashion, Dan Torrance forms a bond with a preternatural cat…and then the film dares to roll right up to the iconic façade of Stanley Kubrick to blow its doors down with unbridled sincerity. Doctor Sleep isn’t just a nice surprise—it’s likely to persist as one of those long-awaited (and possibly even unasked for) sequels that punches way above its weight to become beloved on its own terms. During the past decade, Flanagan’s work has been called unsettling, intense, sincere, and altogether masterful in its resonance; in this case, it can also be called miraculous.

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