Directed by Mike Flanagan
Starring Ewan McGregor, Rebecca Ferguson, Kyliegh Curran
Doctor Sleep comes with a tension not limited to the frightening events you see onscreen: How can a director reconcile the opposing sensibilities of its two primary creative drivers—especially when one famously declared his intense dislike of the other’s work—and come up with an adaptation that not just respects both, but expresses his own unique vision? If you’re a fan of the deep psychological terror in The Shining (the book) or if you prefer the cold, indelible imagery in The Shining (the film), I’m here to tell you that in Mike Flanagan’s confident, capable hands, you will find something to like—and more importantly, something to discover—in his adaptation of its sequel.
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After being initially panned by critics and getting a lukewarm reception from audiences, time has been kind to Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, elevating it to the pantheon of modern horror classics. Meanwhile, the jury is still out on Stephen King’s sequel to his own book which, if truth be told, I felt ambivalent about when I first read it. At the very least, there was the question of its necessity nibbling around the edges; at worst, it felt like King exploiting his own legacy. I felt it had abandoned the claustrophobia and isolation of its source in favor of an expansive, all-cylinders-go adventure with a penchant for barely earned happy endings.
The author should thank his lucky stars he has Mike Flanagan in his corner to argue for the validity of his instincts: The writer-director comes with impressive credentials, having most recently adapted two projects for Netflix: Stephen King’s Gerald’s Game, to relentless effect, and The Haunting of Hill House, a grand horror opus that not only chilled the bones but touched the heart.
Which isn’t to say that Flanagan doesn’t have his own challenges bringing the disparate strands of King’s story together. During its expository stages, Doctor Sleep follows three divergent narrative threads. It is the story of the traumatized little boy Danny Torrance as he grows up to be a traumatized middle-aged adult now going by Dan (Ewan McGregor). He is trying to keep the literal monsters of his past and the metaphorical demon of alcoholism at bay as he lands a job in New Hampshire as an orderly at a nursing home with a preternatural ability to predict which patients are close to dying. Meanwhile, tweener Abra (Kyliegh Curran) slowly gets acquainted with her own ferocious talent for “the shine,” forging a long-distance telepathic friendship with Dan. This, she does while clairvoyantly following the travels of a group of psychic vampires called the True Knot, which feed on the pain and fear of psychically gifted people like Dan and Abra and keep their spirits—which they call the Steam—in canisters for piecemeal consumption. And on top of all that, the True Knot’s leader Rose the Hat (Rebecca Ferguson) has been itching to find an abundant source of Steam to nourish her starving acolytes… and she may have found one in Abra.
The True Knot’s horrifying murder of a young boy (Room’s Jacob Tremblay, in a devastating cameo) will bring these threads together, and here is where Flanagan can finally flex his storytelling muscles. All through the opening, Flanagan has been juggling both Kubrick’s legacy and fidelity to his source material, employing Kubrick’s wide-angle lensing and even his heartbeat soundtrack to emphasize his characters’ essential isolation while keeping true to King’s pulpier narrative impulses. But when Doctor Sleep gets truly cooking, Flanagan reveals something else: a narrative philosophy that bravely looks at death—more characters die in this telling than in King’s book, and Flanagan doesn’t let the audience off the hook when it coming to feeling the pain of each violent passing—but also celebrates life.
It also helps that Doctor Sleep stands on three sturdy legs in its lead actors: McGregor, superbly weary and calling on his long-hidden courage; Curran, feisty and possessed of steely resolve; and Ferguson, seductive in her remote malice. They all ground Flanagan’s stylistic flourishes—a psychic confrontation between Abra and Rose the Hat that features a vertiginous flight through clouds, a thrilling sleight-of-hand, and a rude landing; and a climax that owes its deep satisfaction to Kubrick’s almost prescient creative choices—in all-too-human stakes. If Flanagan’s film is miles better than King’s book, it’s because Doctor Sleep ultimately does more than pay lip service to fans of both King and Kubrick; it reveals Flanagan’s own deeply humanistic viewpoint. The film is not afraid to confront the very real darkness of the world, because it knows that only in the darkness can we truly shine.
Photos from Warner Bros. Pictures