By MICHAEL GINGOLD
Starring Kate Bosworth, Thomas Jane and Jacob Tremblay
Directed by Mike Flanagan
Written by Mike Flanagan and Jeff Howard
Over the past several years, director Mike Flanagan has been building an impressive body of genre work that often focuses on domestic trauma. Sadly, his 2013 production BEFORE I WAKE fell victim to Relativity Media’s financial troubles, which prevented it from achieving the theatrical release it deserved, but it’s now available on Netflix and is well worth a watch.
Flanagan’s customary attention to character psychology carries BEFORE I WAKE, even when the plotting (by Flanagan and regular collaborator Jeff Howard) slides into the routine in the home stretch. For the first hour, though, BEFORE I WAKE is as good and gripping as supernatural drama gets. With telling details and a minimum of exaggeration, Flanagan takes us into the lives of Jessie (a fully engaged Kate Bosworth) and Mark (an appealingly shaggy Thomas Jane), a married couple putting their lives back together in the wake of their little son’s death. Unable to have more children, they adopt an 8-year-old boy named Cody (Jacob Tremblay), who is sweet, well-mannered and—as we know from a prologue—has a dark side. He’s no Damien, though, but rather struggling with a phenomenon in which his dreams, good and bad, manifest in the real world around him. Tremblay, who did this film before his breakout role in ROOM, is uncommonly good as a child forced to make grown-up decisions, who has adopted habits to prevent him from sleeping and to assure his dreams will be pleasant when he does.
While Cody doesn’t always succeed in the latter, BEFORE I WAKE doesn’t develop in typical nightmares-come-to-life directions. Flanagan instead explores a scenario more specifically attuned to his characters’ grief, subverting expectations of a black-and-white family-vs.-evil conflict and finding unease in the way a good person can make bad decisions in the throes of sorrow. Which is not to say that Flanagan completely eschews traditional chills, as a creepy “Canker Man” finds his way out of Cody’s subconscious and into Jessie and Mark’s reality. Throughout, the director receives great assist from the finely calibrated cinematography by Michael Fimognari (also rapidly becoming a genre VIP, with credits including several of Flanagan’s other films, along with JESSABELLE and Bobby Miller’s upcoming THE MASTER CLEANSE).
BEFORE I WAKE does such a good job charting fresh, specific territory that it’s something of a disappointment when the story shifts into investigation-and-exposition mode in the third act. Given that the movie is oriented more toward dark fantasy/drama than strict horror up to this point, the turn to traditional genre tropes feels like a studio mandate—though it’s redeemed in the end by the tight thematic focus Flanagan maintains right up to the final revelation. BEFORE I WAKE isn’t just another nightmare on another suburban street, but a penetrating, stylish and eerie look at what can happen when people take the wrong approach to making their dreams come true.