Written and directed by Mike Flanagan
Based on a novel by Stephen King
Starring Ewan McGregor, Rebecca Ferguson, and Kyliegh Curran
Released by Warner Brothers, 2019
Running time: 152 minutes
Rated R for disturbing and violent content, some bloody images, language, nudity, and drug use
Author’s note: This review contains moderate spoilers. Also, all quotes are paraphrased, as I don’t yet own a copy of the film for reference.
There is a dearth of great horror movies out there, but Doctor Sleep—a masterfully written and beautifully filmed tale about good versus evil—is certainly among them.
Based on a 2013 Stephen King novel of the same name (which is itself a sequel to The Shining), Doctor Sleep stars Ewan McGregor as Danny Torrance, the secondary protagonist of The Shining. In the film’s time line, Torrance is an alcoholic who hits rock bottom in 2011. Determined to turn his life around (and to avoid becoming like his father, a violent alcoholic brilliantly portrayed by Jack Nicholson in Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 film adaptation of The Shining), Torrance leaves behind his crummy New Jersey apartment and boards a randomly chosen bus, which happens to be going to the tiny town of Frazier, New Hampshire.
Meanwhile, in New Jersey, a fifteen-year-old girl named Andi displays telepathic abilities in a movie theater, which is noticed by Rose the Hat (played by Rebecca Ferguson), the sadistic leader of a nomadic cult of psychic vampires known as The True Knot. Rose recruits Andi and promises her (nearly) eternal life; all she must do is help the cult hunt down other psychics, kill them, and absorb their life force (referred to as “Steam”).
The rest of the film takes place in 2019 and follows Torrance and a thirteen-year-old girl named Abra (played by Kyliegh Curran) as they discover that they can speak to one another telepathically over great distances. For the first hour, viewers have little idea what’s going on or how all of the characters are connected, but Flanagan’s tight, provocative writing drops just enough hints to keep you intrigued.
Doctor Sleep is masterfully crafted in nearly every way, but one thing in particular stands out: Its protagonists know that they are good people, know that they have a right to live their own lives, and (almost) never appease or apologize to evil. They act swiftly and decisively in defense of their values, and the film’s villains, although powerful in certain respects, are ultimately pathetic creatures enslaved to their need for Steam. They wear shackles of their own making, and the power they seek ultimately serves no purpose other than to make them crave more of it. It’s rare to see Hollywood identify the nature of evil so clearly, and it’s even rarer to see it done in horror films.
The acting in Doctor Sleep deserves special praise, that of McGregor and Curran in particular. At the beginning of the film, Torrance is a broken man with little to live for, but he explicitly recognizes that he has free will, begins to make better choices, and steadily becomes a self-respecting man who works hard to achieve life-serving values. When he first meets Abra and learns that Rose’s cult is hunting psychics, he tells her, in effect:
The world is a dark and scary place. People like Rose prey on people like you and me. Whatever you do, don’t attract their attention. You shine so brightly, but you’ve gotta try not to. Keep your head down and don’t shine. Whatever these people are doing, it’s not our problem. I’m sorry, but I can’t help you.
But as The True Knot closes in on Abra, Torrance realizes that he can’t in good conscience let them kill her, as they’ve done to so many other children. The two of them, along with Torrance’s best friend, team up and bring the fight to Rose, refusing to be hunted and instead becoming the hunters. When they mortally wound one of the cult members, Abra kneels nearby and tells him, “I hope that hurts. A lot.” Her face is impassive and bears no trace of sympathy for the wicked man who wants to eat her soul, but her eyes are those of a teenager who continues to believe the world is a generally benevolent place. She has seen justice done and refuses to feel guilty about her act of self-defense.
The set design, cinematography, and editing in Doctor Sleep are as excellent as its writing and acting. Subtle but evocative uses of lighting highlight the sharp moral contrast between the heroes and villains. During several of the film’s most dramatic scenes, Flanagan employs camera shots that are creative without being extraneous or distracting. And, as is the case with any great horror film, some of the things intended to scare you the most are not shown on-screen, but rather hinted at or implied to be happening just out of frame.
Doctor Sleep is one of the best horror films of the past thirty years, primarily because of its explicit and accurate identification of the nature of evil—and of the ability of good to overcome it. Near the end of the film, Torrance tells Abra, in effect, “When I told you to keep your head down, and to not shine—I was wrong. Shine on, Abra. Shine as brightly as you can.” Thankfully, we don’t have to deal with psychic vampires in real life, but we should nonetheless shine on, even—nay, especially—when others would prefer that we keep our heads down.
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