Saturday, January 6, 2018

On Netflix: BEFORE I WAKE (2018)

(US - 2018)

Directed by Mike Flanagan. Written by Mike Flanagan and Jeff Howard. Cast: Kate Bosworth, Thomas Jane, Jacob Tremblay, Annabeth Gish, Dash Mihok, Topher Bousquet, Lance E. Nichols, Jay Carnes, Courtney Bell, Michael Polish, Natalie Roers, Kyla Deaver, Antonio Romero, Hunter Wenzel. (PG-13, 97 mins)

For a while, it was looking like American audiences were never going to see BEFORE I WAKE. Filmed in late 2013 and generating some buzz once director/co-writer Mike Flanagan's OCULUS opened in the spring of 2014 to acclaim from critics and horror fans, BEFORE I WAKE found itself a casualty of Relativity's financial problems. After shuffling the film's release date numerous times while attempting to avoid bankruptcy, Relativity eventually threw in the towel in 2015, leaving BEFORE I WAKE and several other films--including COLLIDE, THE DISAPPOINTMENTS ROOM, and MASTERMINDS--stuck in legal limbo. While those films were eventually acquired by other distributors, BEFORE I WAKE was left behind, released everywhere else in the world except the US. In the meantime, Flanagan moved on and made three more movies: HUSH, OUIJA: ORIGIN OF EVIL, and GERALD'S GAME. HUSH and GERALD'S GAME were two of the more successful Netflix Originals and as a result, Netflix did Flanagan a solid by picking up BEFORE I WAKE for its extremely belated release more than four years after it was completed and still sporting a 2014 copyright. One of the very few of the current crop of "masters of horror" who might actually be worthy of the title, Flanagan kept his OCULUS mojo going with BEFORE I WAKE, a horror fantasy that's thoughtful and ambitious if a bit uneven. There's one subplot that doesn't really go anywhere and there's a stretch in the second half where the pace really lags but it culminates in a climax that's raw and emotionally devastating. Flanagan cares about his characters. He's especially adept at writing strong female characters (Karen Gillan in OCULUS and Carla Gugino in GERALD'S GAME), and that's the case here with Kate Bosworth turning in the best performance of her career.

BEFORE I WAKE opens with a man (Dash Mihok) pointing a gun at a child as he sleeps. Cut to Jessie (Bosworth) and Mark Hobson (Thomas Jane), a couple looking to become foster parents. They're still grieving the tragic loss of their young son Sean (Antonio Romero) in a bathtub drowning and. They're unable to have more children and still wish to provide a loving home to a child in need. They get their wish with Cody Morgan ("introducing" a very young-looking Jacob Tremblay, two years before his breakthrough as Brie Larson's son in ROOM), the sleeping child in the opening scene. Cody is a quiet, sensitive orphan with an intense interest in butterflies. He warms to the Hobsons quickly, though he has contraband stashed away in a closely-guarded shoebox: after he's put to bed each night, he guzzles energy drinks and pops No-Doz to keep from falling asleep. Jessie finds out, and assuming it's because of the trauma he's endured, assures him he can sleep safe and sound in their home. What Jessie and Mark soon discover is that Cody can manifest his dreams in reality. After he falls asleep, they're visited by numerous butterflies fluttering around the living room that vanish into thin air as soon as Cody wakes. Seeing a picture of Sean, the curious Cody asks if he's in Heaven like his mother. That night, as Cody sleeps and dreams, Sean appears in the living room to greet his parents. He's physically there, smiling, hugging them, and then he disappears once Cody is awake. "I didn't mean to...I'm sorry," Cody tells them, powerless against his dreams and his ability to make them real. Of course, if his dreams are real, then genre logic must dictate that his nightmares are as well, and that becomes apparent with the arrival of a demonic figure Cody calls "The Canker Man" (Topher Bousquet), who comes into his room at night and terrorizes him with the ominous promise that "I'll always be a part of you!"

While Flanagan goes for Blumhouse-style jump scares with the sudden appearances of The Canker Man and some ghostly-looking, eyeless kids, he's got other things in mind. He explores issues of the cycle of abuse, with the ability to see and hold Sean causing Jessie to use Cody's gift to her advantage, knocking him out with Ambien every night and making sure to talk about Sean and show Cody pictures and DVDs of him to ensure that he'll dream about him and return her dead son to her once again. An outraged Mark is quick to point out that drugging Cody and using him as her personal "home movie projector" is the definition of abuse. There's an unexpected occurrence 2/3 of the way through and a developing mystery centered on what happened to Cody's mother and all of his subsequent foster parents, and in the home stretch, Flanagan does a good job of channeling elements of Steven Spielberg, M. Night Shyamalan, and Guillermo del Toro (it's really surprising that Doug Jones isn't playing the Canker Man) without it coming off like a hackneyed ripoff. But it's the unexpected, gut-wrenching emotional impact of the final act, and the outstanding performances by Bosworth and Tremblay (Flanagan seeing long before ROOM that this is a remarkable young actor) that really separate BEFORE I WAKE from its jump-scare genre brethren, even if all of its disparate elements don't quite come together (that bully subplot is underdeveloped, to put it mildly). Finally seeing BEFORE I WAKE and putting it in its proper context as far as Flanagan's filmography is concerned, you can see recurring themes and obsessions popping up time and again (specifically, family ties and strong women triumphing over traumatic pasts). It's a flawed but powerful and ultimately quite moving film that further, even if retroactively, establishes Flanagan as one of the top genre filmmakers working today.

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