Doctor Sleep Is Another Home Run For Director Mike Flanagan
Adapting Stephen King’s sequel to The Shining, Doctor Sleep, was always going to be a challenging endeavor. Kubrick’s adaptation of the Shining has stood as one of the more renowned of all the King adaptations that have been produced thus far. Kubrick’s distinct visual style permeates every frame of the film, and few would argue that Jack Nicholson’s performance in the film isn’t one of his most memorable. It’s also a film Stephen King has always hated, given the numerous liberties Kubrick took with the source material. So in adapting the novel’s sequel to film, where should the focus lie?
As Doctor Sleep begins, we catch up with Danny and his mother Wendy, almost immediately after their ordeal at the Overlook Hotel. Danny is still haunted by the ghosts that inhabit the hotel, but with some guidance from the spirit of Dick Hallerann, he learns how to use his shine to contain the spirits. Fast-fowarding to present day however, “Dan” Torrance has spent much of his adult life getting blackout drunk and shambling across the country, with no real connection to anyone. Making his way to a small town in New Hampshire, Dan works towards getting clean and finds work as an orderly at the local hospice. Quickly realizing that he can use the shining to offer comfort to patients as they pass on, those that remain begin to refer to him as “Doctor Sleep”. When he encounters someone else using the shining to communicate with him, a pre-teen girl named Abra, he discovers an even greater threat than the spirits of the Overlook, that could be a danger to them both.
The second Mike Flanagan was tapped to direct Doctor Sleep, I was confident that this film would not disappoint. He is a director who understands how important character is to a horror/suspense story, proving this time and again with films like Hush, Oculus, Ouja: Origin of Evil, Before I Wake and the Netflix series, The Haunting of Hill House. It also doesn’t hurt that he already had a Stephen King adaptation under his belt, with the surprisingly effective Gerald’s Game. Family and generational trauma are a big theme in many of these projects, so it’s no surprise how effortlessly he tackles that same material in Doctor Sleep. Dan Torrance is in constant conflict with his father’s only struggles with alcoholism, while trying to suppress the gifts that he’s been given. He realizes that he needs to be for Abra what Dick Hallerann was for him, and the path he has to follow is anything but easy. Ewan McGregor’s performance is measured and appropriately understated. He’s believable as a character both fearful of, and yet yearning for connection. Newcomer Kyliegh Curran as Abra, by comparison, is such a brilliantly realized character, infused with a perfect balance of whimsy, resolve, fear, and confidence. Abra is a character more instinctively knowledgeable about her abilities than even Dan is as an adult, and much of it is due to her experiences as a child, growing up with birthday parties featuring magicians, and developing a love of fantasy and anime as she enters adolescence, and elements of this are expertly sprinkled throughout Doctor Sleep.
As antagonists go, the True Knot are especially terrifying, led by Rebecca Ferguson as Rose The Hat. Aside from a few instances where she lets her British accent slip, she is giving her all with her performance. Rose is a character that is enigmatic and seductive, but also delightfully ruthless, and Ferguson is having more fun with the role than the law would allow. There is an element to Rose however, that suggests that she cares deeply for those within the True Knot. She sees them as her family, acknowledging the reverence of Carel Struycken’s Grandpa Flick, and lovingly initiating Emily Alyn Lind’s Snakebite Andi into the fold. These performances also strengthen the familial bond of the True Knot, despite their predatory nature. As someone who’s followed Zach McClarnon’s career for years, I was pleasantly surprised to see how much he was given to do as Rose’s partner, Crow Daddy. His roguish charm is tempered with nurturing and concern for Rose’s well-being as Abra proves difficult for her to manipulate.
In addition to the film’s wealth of strong, fleshed out characters, Doctor Sleep also succeeds by virtue of its visual aesthetic and use of sound. Several scenes in the film feature characters in solitude, emphasizing the vastness of space around them, even if the setting they’re in would be perceived as being much smaller under different circumstances. There’s a subtle distortion of reality that’s positively mesmerizing, and makes transitions into characters’ dreamspaces easy to follow. Flanagan has long since established himself as a director who favors building tension and suspense over relying on jump scares, and Doctor Sleep is easily one of the best films to come out this year that understands the lasting impact of a successful building of tension within a given scene, and how he decides to diffuse that tension is just as important. And while Doctor Sleep certainly isn’t trying to be some gory slasher, there are moments in the film that are quite visceral, and may leave some moviegoers turning away in disgust.
In terms of reconciling two disparate versions of The Shining within this adaptation of Doctor Sleep, Flanagan succeeds more often than he fails. There is an understanding of the reverence that many have for Kubrick’s original film, and there are several nods to it, both in visuals, and in incorporating the film’s hauntingly memorable opening theme. There is also some inspired casting of characters from The Shining, including Alex Essoe as Wendy Torrance, Carl Lumbly as Dick Hallerann, and an almost unrecognizable Henry Thomas as Jack Torrance. Flanagan manages to balance these elements with the larger story of Doctor Sleep in a way that is respectful to both King’s original novel and Kubrick’s classic film. His incorporation of some important story elements from the original Shining novel do make for one major deviation from the Doctor Sleep novel, but I can understand why Flanagan chose to go in this direction, and in the context of the film, it makes for a more satisfying resolution in my opinion.
As a fan of Mike Flanagan’s work in general, Doctor Sleep is another exceptional entry in his filmography. The dream-like aesthetic to everything is a sight to behold, the story is deep and layered, and supported with strong, three-dimensional characters, all with their own defined motivations, strengths, and flaws. Ewan McGregor and Kyliegh Curran are amazing as the adult Dan Torrance and Abra Stone, and there are no words to describe the energy that Rebecca Ferguson brings to her performance as Rose The Hat. As intensely dramatic as it is thrilling and suspenseful, Doctor Sleep is easily one of my favorite films of 2019.
4.5 out of 5