Before I Wake (2016)

JANUARY 12, 2018


If you were unaware of Before I Wake's long journey to release here in the US, you might be baffled by the "Introducing Jacob Tremblay" credit that appears at its end, since, you know, you've seen him in like five other movies. But it's (mostly) true; when the film was shot in 2013, Tremblay had yet to work on Room and become one of the most acclaimed child actors in ages (though he was already in Smurfs 2, which came out before Before I Wake was shot, so I dunno), and it's a shame that the film didn't get the benefit of the wide theatrical release it was once promised. I still recall seeing its trailer quite a few times in theaters, but the bankruptcy of its original distributor (Relativity*) left it in limbo until it was rescued by Netflix, which is rapidly becoming the exclusive place to find Mike Flanagan's films.

Unlike Flanagan's other films this one is only really a horror film in a tangential sense. The plot concerns Cody (Tremblay), a foster child who is bounced around and has seemingly finally found a good home with Tom Jane and Kate Bosworth, who lost their son in an accident (he drowned in their bathtub). However Cody has a strange gift - when he dreams, his visions come to life in the real world around him, sort of like an inverse Freddy Krueger. At first the things he conjures up are pleasant enough - starting with butterflies and eventually their dead son, who gives the grieving parents fleeting moments of reunion until Cody wakes up in his sleep and pops another soda open. See, the kid knows of his gift and seems afraid of it, and it's not long until we know why - his nightmares also appear in the real world, and they're dangerous. So every now and then we get a perfectly good scare scene (in fact I got jolted twice, which is more than I do for most traditional horror), but there's no traditional enemy to overcome or anything like that - it's just a race to help this kid.

So it's more of a fairy tale, possibly slightly closer to horror than Shape of Water (which I loved, by the way) but in that same ball park of "this will be of interest to horror fans, but isn't exactly a horror movie". And I want to stress that, because I'm seeing lots of negative reviews on the film and I can't help but wonder if it's partially due to the fact that the trailers suggest something more in the vein of Boogeyman or even Flanagan's own Oculus. Ever take a sip of a glass of lemonade that you thought was plain water and end up spitting it out? It's not that you hate lemonade - but when you're expecting something else the brain doesn't register it in time. That can happen with movies too, and it's a disservice to the film to sell it as another supernatural creepfest when it's something more dramatic and touching. I couldn't help but remember the film Dragonfly with Kevin Costner, which was also sold somewhat as a horror movie but ultimately, like this film, wanted to dig deeper and maybe make you tear up instead of shriek.

On that note, I'm happy to report I was not as much of a wreck as I have been in the past couple years when it comes to dead kid stuff. I choked up at a particular moment I can't spoil here, but I had no problems with the earlier stuff, where Jane and Bosworth are dealing with their grief in ways both overt (she goes to therapy) and subtle (before we even learn how their son died, Jane installing railings in the bathtub to prepare for Cody's arrival and looking weary at their presence pretty much tells the story, i.e. "Why didn't we put these in for our first son?"). Hopefully this means I'm just adjusting more to being a father and not worrying AS much of the time as I was in the first two or three years, though it's also perhaps due to the fact that this was not a surprising plot point - the trailers tell us that their son died and that Cody's dreams bring him back, and he's also gone when the film begins, sparing us the trauma of getting to know him a bit before he is taken away. Kind of like John Wick; I knew it was about a guy getting revenge for his dog, so I didn't tear up when the poor pooch died like I might for, well, Wonder, which also has Tremblay.

(I haven't seen it yet, but I frequently check to prepare myself for such things. I don't even have a dog!)

The other thing that made this subplot work for me was the smart idea of Flanagan to not assign blame to either parent. At first it seemed it might have been Bosworth's fault, because she seems to to be the one having more trouble dealing with it and also is more concerned when Cody takes a bath for the first time, but later on she pins some blame on Jane, who replies "Not fair", suggesting it was actually under his watch that it happened. We never know the full details (and they don't matter), but this allows us to never start to see either parent as "lesser" the way some (including me) probably would for a movie where a child finds his dad's handgun and the inevitable happens - dad's fault, bad dad! The different ways they deal with their grief is what's really important, and it's heartbreaking to see unfold. Jane wants to move on and "replace" his son with Cody by trying to do fun things with him (if you've ever wanted to see Tom Jane tout the capabilities of the Xbox Kinect, this is your movie), while Bosworth knowingly uses Cody's ability by exposing him to multiple photos and home videos of their son so that his dreamed up version will be more accurate. I don't know how I'd deal with this myself, as I suspect most viewers would (and will hopefully never have to find out), so by keeping the blame neutral, we can sympathize in equal measures.

All that said, it's not a home run, and ultimately ranks low in Flanagan's filmography. Not that it's a bad movie, but something's gotta come in last and this might be it (or neck and neck with Ouija 2, another movie that overall I liked). The main issue is the third act, which is where the film's "on the fence" status with the horror genre gets to be a concern. Some of Cody's nightmares cause harm in the real world, and it's a plot point that is never wrapped up satisfyingly, which is quite odd when you consider that one of the nightmare vision's victims is one of Cody's classmates. After the kid is taken, we are treated to not one but two scenes with the police showing up to ask questions, and both times it's completely skipped over how it's handled. One time it cuts from the cops showing up at their house to a little while later when Jane and Tremblay are building a bed together as if nothing happened. What did the cops ask? Why are they suspicious of Cody? Where are the kids' parents in all of this? It's a major development (it's the first time we really see how damaging his nightmares can be) but it's treated with as much fanfare as Jason offing some random in a Friday the 13th sequel.

It also feels a bit like Flanagan (and his frequent collaborator, Jeff Howard) came up with a fantastic premise for a movie and didn't quite know where to take it. When it's contained to just Cody and the parents, it's all good, but as the world opens up more (and, in its most horror-y element, Bosworth goes to talk to one of the former foster parents in a mental institute to get some exposition, which is more cliche than any of the jump scare setups) it just adds questions the movie doesn't feel like answering in a satisfying way. Cody is also put into deep sleep which manifests enough shit to swarm the clinic he's in, so Bosworth running through this place and seeing all sorts of creepy things threatens to not only fully cement it as a horror movie, but a lame one at that. For its first hour we're not quite sure how it will end up, so seeing it end up in a generic CGI-addled landscape is kind of disappointing. As I've said a bunch, a movie can suck for a good chunk of the time but still be salvaged by a great final reel - but a movie that works for a while and then sputters out won't always have enough goodwill to keep it in the "win" column.

But again, it's worth seeing, and didn't deserve the fate it got, though I guess Hush and Gerald's Game being Netflix releases hasn't really hurt their chances at success; that's just my traditionalist mentality at play. Still, as a longtime fan of Tom Jane's I was hoping this film's success could provide a little comeback for the actor, who hasn't toplined a wide release in nearly a decade (The Mist, where his kid's death was DEFINITELY his fault) - he's too interesting a presence to be relegated to all this VOD stuff, dammit! But however it came along, I'm just happy to see him in a normal role again, and now that this has been cleared off my plate I can finally check out 1922, his third Stephen King adaptation (he's a good fit for King's characters - he's easily the most comfortable one in Dreamcatcher, which is no easy task). As for Flanagan, he's already cemented lifetime curiosity status, so a minor entry isn't really the end of the world. In six movies he's made three great ones, one really solid one (Oculus), and two that are pretty good and worth seeing (this and Ouija) - an enviable track record no matter what order they were released.

What say you?

*They had a choice between this and The Disappointments Room, and they went with the latter. I suspect this film might have grossed more than $2.4m.

1 comment:

  1. Great review! I just saw this movie a week ago :-). It wasn't bad at all overall, and the little boy played his role excellent. The idea is very good, but the execution could have been a bit better :-). But, I enjoyed it.


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