“A young couple adopt an orphaned child whose dreams – and nightmares – manifest physically as he sleeps.”
Oh oh, I really want to like Mike Flanagan’s movies. After both Absentia and Oculus came pretty close, and the genuine delight that was Hush kept trailing me along, my hope was that it was just a matter of finding the right script that would gel with his particular film making style. On paper, Before I Wake seems like it could be that script; blending fantasy and horror elements in ways that practically beg for comparisons to Pan’s Labyrinth. Unfortunately, the presentation doesn’t quite live up to its potential, which is really too bad.
While the movie doesn’t completely drop the ball, the elements that do work just don’t work quite well enough to make this as great as it good be. The story has similar issues that were present in Oculus, where the idea is interesting but the rules set up by that idea aren’t entirely clear and seem to change based on what the screenplay needs, rather than being a representation of how that world works.
The visuals in Before I Wake are probably where the strength lies, despite the film’s tendancy to fall back on cheap jump scares. These visuals do rely pretty heavily on computer effects, which is a little bit disappointing, as it’s likely the images on screen would have been more powerful and frightening with some care and effort had gone into their creation. The Canker man is effective, if not a bit cheesy, and personally I found him to be pretty unsettling. The most unfortunate part about the visuals really does come back to that reliance on jump scares, without them, there could have been an effort to build atmosphere and allow them to be scary all on their own. With that said, that appears to be the present standard for horror, particularly larger budget horror like this one, so it seems like something people are ready to tolerate.
The performances are enough to help anyone get through the movie, despite the characters being infinitely frustrating. The movie centers around Thomas Jane and Cate Bosworth, and the pair are demonstrating very different ways of grieving, and that is actually something of an interesting dynamic. That said, it would have been nice if their levels of grief had been reversed. We see this paradigm of “Men get over things faster than women” so often that it was to be expected, and a swap might have made their characters more interesting. That said, it’s clear that Bosworth’s character is not ready to bring a child into their home, but she does anyways. Once she finds out that her new son can conjure deceased son in his dreams she immediately begins to exploit this ability.
Her character is infuriatingly selfish, and abusive to the point where she drugs the young boy in order to activate his powers. The instability is very uncomfortable, and Bosworth is pretty good in her role, despite my constant frustration. The star of the show has to be Jacob Tremblay, who just gave an excellent performance in Room. He, once again, plays an emotionally vulnerable character and delivers a strong performance all the way through. Thomas Jane … well, he’s Thomas Jane so he’s… as good as ever I guess?
Where Before I Wake really unravels is in the ending. So many elements are brushed passed in the expectation that we will just accept it because the movie has elements of a fairy tale. The trouble is , that this fairy tale is set in a very clearly real present, and so the gaps in the story are a little bit harder to take. The ending also feels a bit to sweet and sentimental, despite the darkness that follows it, and that takes some of the punch out of the deaths and scares in the film. Some elements simply aren’t resolved, which feels more frustrating than interesting.
Buried within the ending, however, is an interesting idea about how children perceive the world, and the way things are remembered. It’s just never fully realized, and that is one of the biggest shames about the movie as a whole.
While I kind of enjoyed this, and even recommend it, I will add the caveat that it’s also not especially good. It’s not a bad little popcorn movie, but it’s far from being a great horror film. Maybe next time Flanagan… (Just kidding).
MY RATING: ***