Before I Wake
A young couple adopt an orphaned child whose dreams - and nightmares - manifest physically as he sleeps.
There are clearly several inspirations at work in Mike Flanagan’s latest film, Before I Wake. I spotted some call-outs to A Nightmare on Elm Street, The Shining, the little-known Bernard Rose gem, Paperhouse and there’s even a remarkably similar image to something out of Clive Barker’s Hellraiser.
Jessie (Kate Bosworth of Superman Returns) and Mark (Thomas Jane of The Mist and Deep Blue Sea) are trying to pick up the pieces and move on with their lives; following the drowning death of their young son Sean (Antonio Romero). In an attempt to heal, they have agreed to foster a young orphan named Cody (Room’s Jacob Tremblay). Cody’s been in and out of foster homes since his mother died, and each tenure with these families has ended in tragic disappearances. It turns out that Cody’s dreams (and in turn, his nightmares – in the form of “The Canker Man”) and all the images therein, are able to manifest themselves and interact with those around him. It’s sometimes good, sometimes bad – all the time unhealthy. Cody’s got a basic understanding of these gifts, and so he does everything he can to keep himself awake.
The film’s story is pretty run-of-the-mill. Family is mentally and emotionally exposed by tragedy, leaving them open to supernatural events and violence from the other side. In the tradition of Poltergeist, early on – the creepy happenings are comforting, exciting and playful. But, of course, this pleasant hunky-dory-ness quickly becomes dark and dangerous. Truly, no new ground is broken here, but…
What keeps this somewhat by-the-numbers film in a class above so many others, are the technical aspects and the performances.
First up, the film is beautifully shot. As was the case in his earlier films (Oculus, Absentia), Flanagan knows how to play you. He knows how to use darkness and slight movement (did you see something?) to frighten you. He’s got a firm grasp on suspense techniques and gasp-out-loud “boo” moments. All of these tried-n-true methods are present in Before I Wake. It’s just an enjoyably spooky ride.
The visual effects are top-notch, and with Cody’s fascination with butterflies, there’s no shortage of that imagery throughout – many times, hordes of the winged-creatures fill the space. It’s magical and it’s beautiful – until things turn dark.
As for performances; Bosworth captures the debilitating grief after the loss of her son, and the boundless hope brought back to her life by Cody. It’s a truly heartbreaking performance, and Bosworth brings to life the many facets of a mother in pain. It was fascinating to find myself both sympathizing and hurting for Jessie, and then moments later, shake my head in disgust at some of the things she does. From a technical standpoint, Bosworth is one helluva crier and throughout the entire film, even when she’s not shedding tears – there’s a constant glow of her moist eyes – right on the verge of overflowing. With so many solid performances in Before I Wake – Bosworth ups the ante and steals the show.
I was deeply intrigued by the on-screen chemistry of Bosworth and Jane. The relationship was obviously well-developed on the page, but their interactions brought an authentic and touching reality to this grieving couple. I bought every second – the absence of Mark at their group therapy sessions, but there still very connected co-grief. I wonder how Bosworth and Jane got along on set. Isn’t it some sort of universal rule that co-stars who love one another have little chemistry in front of the camera, and those who despise their scene partners – deliver amazing fireworks? Well, if that holds any water, Bosworth and Jane must have truly hated one another, ‘cause what they are able to create in this fictional (and very broken) little family; is lovely.
Tremblay blew everyone’s mind with his work in Room. He’s equally as spectacular here, but far more subdued. Cody’s a very disturbed little kid, but he hides it well. He’s sweet (saying “I’m sorry” when Jessie and Mark first encounter his gifts) and loving and clearly wants to make this particular family work. Tremblay – like so many child actors – wears his heart on his sleeve. You can’t hide what they’re feeling as the character, and this quality forces you to adore Cody. With the work of Bosworth, Jane and Tremblay, you’ll be wringing your hands with anticipation and hope – that this messed-up family unit will succeed… and thrive. You don’t get your audience feeling those kind of emotions if your actors stink. It’s a true trifecta of acting prowess.
In supporting roles you’ll find the ever-amazing Annabeth Gish (whom I’ve loved for decades) and Flanagan’s wife Courtney Bell – whom you’ll remember from her stellar performance in Flanagan’s feature debut, the fantastic Absentia. Bell and Flanagan’s son (Rigby Flanagan-Bell) shows up in flashbacks as a younger version of Cody.
Some of the story’s revelations early on are done with subtlety and nuance – like how you initially discover the fate of the family’s child. It’s further explained later – in very clear terms – but this first dialogue-less scene of Jane in the bathroom – so beautifully done.
The film started to lose some luster as time went on. And naturally, we fell into the old “Nancy Drew bit” (as always, thanks to Kevin Tenney’s Witchboard for the phrase). Before I Wake’s version of these par-for-the-course investigative sequences, seemed to drag a bit longer than most. It’s always important to fill in the gaps, but there must be a way that the writers/filmmakers can get the same information across without this overused “detective work”. First one to do so – well, I’ll buy you a Coke.
I found the final explanation a little clumsy and convenient. Jessie sits down with Cody, after the frightening and revealing climax – and wraps everything up very nicely. It felt too easy, and as always, I was left with some questions – not about what happened, but how things in the “real world” of the film would have been addressed post-craziness. I won’t spoil it by pointing out my concern, but certain logical things were left open. And even though this film has a very fairy tale/fantastical side to it, I still need reality to keep me (as well as the characters and situations) firmly planted on the ground.
I was most intrigued by the relationships of the characters and the performances from the actors who brought them to life. While the story was nothing particularly original, Before I Wake has plenty of suspense, scares and well-developed characters to warrant a firm recommendation.
Before I Wake (originally titled Somnia) was initially scheduled for theatrical release on September 9th, but has now been delayed indefinitely. IMDb simply shows the US release date as “2016”.