Film Review: “Doctor Sleep” Keeps Us Awake, Even If It Never Quite Shines

Film poster: “Doctor Sleep”

Doctor Sleep (Mike Flanagan, 2019) 2½ out of 4 stars.

A perfectly acceptable, if not particularly remarkable, adaptation of a book I haven’t read – Stephen King’s eponymous 2013 sequel to his 1977 The Shining – Doctor Sleep is mostly involving throughout its (long) 150-minute running time. Ewan McGregor (Christopher Robin) stars as the adult Danny (now Dan) Torrance, with Rebecca Ferguson (The Greatest Showman) as the lead villain, Rose (“Rose the Hat,” to be precise), so we are in excellent hands, performance-wise. Director Mike Flanagan (Gerald’s Game) knows his way around a camera and is well-versed in the horror genre that is his specialty, meaning there’s plenty of competence to go around. I was engaged, if never entranced. Given what a fellow critic told me about the significant changes Flanagan (also the writer) has made to the original story, however, I suspect that King fans may be in for a shock, or perhaps disappointment. But for those who come in cold (though seeing this film without having seen or read Part 1 will be confusing), it plays well enough.

We first meet Dan while he is still Danny, in 1980, just after a prologue where a different child, Violet, is lured into a trap by Rose. Flanagan starts us off with a brief recap of the musical theme from Stanley Kubrick’s famous 1980 film, telegraphing trouble from the beginning. Rose seems sweet, gently coaxing the young girl into her space with her magic hat, from which she pulls flowers, but then her “friends” appear from the woods, disappearing Violet from this earth and from the story (almost). It’s just one of a few acts of violence visited upon an innocent, and not the worst one. Cut to Danny, riding his big wheel tricycle in the Overlook Hotel, which turns out to be a dream, or a dream within a dream, haunting him much as did the hotel, itself. But thanks to trusty Dick (the also “shining” cook who died in the first film and now reappears as a spirit from beyond), he learns how to lock up the ghosts inside the lockboxes of his powerful mind.

Ewan McGregor in DOCTOR SLEEP ©Warner Bros.

Leap forward, now to 2011, and Danny is an alcoholic, as was hid dad, and it’s McGregor’s picture from them on. We watch as he first behaves terribly, then finds a new town where new friends help him into a 12-step program, and then it’s 8 years later and he is sober and at peace, for once. Until, that is, a new child, Abra (Kyliegh Curran), an even stronger shiner than Dan, finds him and warns him of a threat she has seen from afar. It’s Rose and her gang, a race of vampire-like people who feed off those with extrasensory abilities (which they call “steam”). Dan must then decide whether to remain in his safe cocoon of respite from demons or join the fight he has avoided his whole life, using his powers for good. Although, to be fair, he has found his place by working in a hospice where he eases the dying into the ever-after (from which he has earned his titular nickname of “Doctor Sleep”), which is a kind, selfless act. But Abra requires something more, and the resulting battle will force Dan to confront his past, and more.

Flanagan has a fine way with actors – the entire ensemble is good – and delivers plenty of suspenseful goods, but somehow the end result is slightly underwhelming, though it was fun to see the Overlook rebuilt for this film. Perhaps it’s the length, which undercuts the thrills, or maybe it’s the script choices, which lead to a somewhat unsatisfying conclusion (made even more so when I learned of the book’s plot). Or it might be the deeply distressing scene of a child being tortured and killed. Still, Ferguson makes a thoroughly satisfying antagonist, and McGregor, once he stops playing such a passive character, is her equal, along with Curran and supporting players Cliff Curtis (The Meg) and Zahn McClarnon (FX’s Fargo, Season 2), among others. I came in with zero expectations, and had a decent time. If it didn’t quite shine, it also didn’t put me to sleep. Sometimes that’s all we need.

Kyliegh Curran and Rebecca Ferguson in DOCTOR SLEEP ©Warner Bros.

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About chrisreedfilm

Christopher Llewellyn Reed is a film critic, filmmaker, and educator. A member of the Washington DC Area Film Critics Association (WAFCA) and a Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic, he is Associate Editor and film critic at filmfestivaltoday.com; lead film critic at hammertonail.com, an online magazine devoted to independent cinema; the host of Dragon Digital Media’s award-winning "Reel Talk with Christopher Llewellyn Reed"; a film commentator for the "Roughly Speaking” podcast with Dan Rodricks at "The Baltimore Sun"; and the author of "Film Editing: Theory and Practice." In addition, he is one of three co-creators, along with Summre Garber of Slamdance and Bart Weiss of Dallas VideoFest, of "The Fog of Truth" (fogoftruth.com) – available on iTunes, SoundCloud and Stitcher – a podcast devoted to documentary cinema.
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