Click here for the flashback interview with Ewan McGregor for SALMON FISHING IN THE YEMEN.
DR. SLEEP, the sequel to THE SHINING, faced several issues in being brought to the screen, and has done so with a neat aplomb. The original film veered wildly from its source material as Stanley Kubrick adapted it to fit his vision rather than that of the book’s author, Stephen King. Much, it should be noted, to King’s chagrin. Still, so deeply embedded in the culture is that version that to ignore it completely with a cinematic sequel would be to disrespect an achievement that still inspires not undiluted reverence. Thus, Mike Flanagan has devised a seamless reconciliation that is true, or as true as adaptations can be, to both the previous film and novel on which it was loosely based. In fact, he’s turned several of the problems into virtues, while making a film that has true horror. The kind that spills into real life.
With only a brief flashback, we pick up the story of Danny Torrance (Ewan McGregor) a few decades on. As can be expected after suffering the trauma of being chased with an axe by a father with murderous intent, Danny has problems. Still shining, he is addicted to alcohol, casual hook-up and bar brawls. After a particularly gnarly bout with all three, he heads north from New Jersey to the small hamlet of Frazier, New Hampshire. Fate or chance leads him to Billy (Cliff Curtis), who takes one look at Dan, as he now goes by, and realizes that he needs help. The which he provides in the form of a boarding-house garret and a part-time job running the miniature train through the eerily accurate replica of Frazier dubbed Teeny Town. It’s the AA meeting, though, to which Billy guides him that takes Dan into a second job as an orderly in a hospice. An actual hospice as opposed to the open air one that we all live in, as Dan points out to Dr. John (Bruce Greenwood) when asked if Dan would mind working in a place where people go to die. There he comforts the dying as only someone who has seen the other side can.
Meanwhile, Rose the Hat (Rebecca Ferguson) is leading her band of near-immortals, The True Knot, to prey on kids who have the shining, or steam, as they call it. The pickings are getting slimmer, perhaps because of diet or cell phones posits Rose’s wiry henchman, Crow Daddy (Zahn McClarnon), causing the band’s caravan on long treks of diminishing returns. Until they lock in on Abra (Kyliegh Curran), a 13-year-old who shines especially brightly, and who has been conducting a long-distance friendship with Dan for 11 years via chalk messages on the latter’s garret wall.
The ensuing struggle between the forces of darkness and the innocence of childhood consign the supernatural elements of the story to a secondary tier. The real horror of the piece: child abduction, sexual predators, the worry that your child has an affliction that can’t be cures, and the sneaking suspicion that privacy is an illusion, vie with the larger metaphysical questions of whether or not the universe is a random aggregation dispensing injustice without noticing, much less caring, or if there is a fate to which we are consigned that cannot be altered. With DR. SLEEP tapping such fears, little else is needed. Hence, little that is truly gruesome appears on screen, allowing us to imagine what is happening, such as the slow torture death of an abducted child to the all but orgiastic delight of the perpetrators, or the bits and pieces of a fresh corpse exposed in a shallow grave. The reaction of those who discover it suffices, as they recoil and retch.
The performances are quiet. McGregor is particularly effective as a decent soul battling demons (literal and metaphorical) that he is barely strong enough to stave off. There is a gentleness and warmth to his broken spirit. Ferguson’s Rose has a smile as luminous as it is pure evil, while Curran exhibits a preternatural gravitas with the presence of a very old soul in a young body. The effect is ominous, with Flanagan paying homage with echoes throughout, a particularly fine one in Dr. John’s office that evokes Jack Torrance’s initial interview for the caretaker job at the Overlook Hotel. Once we get to the hotel, as inevitably we must, the replication of the original in the throes of decay is precise, as are the new elements as lights bloom at Dan’s approach despite no source of power, and the infamous maze take on a new role. As with Kubrick’s film, the pacing is deliberate, but not sluggish. The jolts that jar the psyche are never telegraphed, creating an even greater sense of suspense.
DR. SLEEP is the stuff of nightmares not easily shaken off. In it, the creeping nihilism that pervades our culture makes hope a fragile thing, though still worth protecting even in the face of pure, hungry evil. Evil that we can never defeat, only hold at bay.