Hello, everyone! Praise be, I’m getting back into the swing of things with semi-weekly blog posts. That means I have my shit together, guys. What a day to be me. Anyway, today I’m reviewing the new Netflix original horror movie Before I Wake, directed by Mike Flanagan (Hush, Ouija: Origin of Evil) and starring Jacob Tremblay (child star and precocious devil) and Kate Bosworth (moonlights as a mannequin). The film started off semi-promisingly, then slowly unravelled into a sappy, gooey mess with a stack of unanswered questions. From the director of Hush, my favorite home invasion movie, and Ouija, which had a gruesome, unsettling ending, I expected a lot more than Before I Wake‘s tepid scares and cheesy resolution.
Synopsis: After their 3 year old son Sean drowns in the bathtub, Jessie (Kate Bosworth) and Mark (Thomas Jane), decide to adopt Cody (Jacob Tremblay), an orphan whose mother died when he was three and has since jumped from family to family under mysterious circumstances. Although Cody seems ideal, they soon realize he has the power to make his dreams and nightmares a reality. At first his dreams manifest as harmless butterflies, Cody’s favorite subject, but then Jessie starts seeing Sean around the house and becomes obsessed with making Cody sleep. Despite Cody’s fears that a being called the Canker Monster will find him and kill them all, Jessie goes to greater lengths to ensure Cody sleeps, resulting in catastrophe.
My take: When I said the movie starts off promisingly, I wasn’t joking. The initial scenes, from a rhythmic edit of the couple preparing the house for Cody’s arrival (including installing a no-slip bar in the bath), to the delicate scene of the first sighting of the day-glo dream butterflies, attempts to establish a subtle, haunting tone for the movie. But soon after that, the movie falls prey to clichés. There’s the friendly schoolmate whose only role is to ask Cody expositional questions, the bully who has Canker Monster Victim written all over him, and the tough social worker who, despite working on Cody’s case for his 8 year existence, hasn’t connected the dots about his abilities and his past.
Even Cody is a stereotype. Writing child characters is difficult, but there has to be a higher standard than defining them by one obsession. I understand that kids have one-track minds (my brother played with nothing but Legos for 5 years), but writing Cody as a butterfly aficionado with no other hobbies makes him a pretty one-dimensional character, especially since he’s supposed to be the light of the film. Jessie and Mark are even less defined. All I know about Jessie after watching this film is that she’s a grieving mother who may or may not be a nurse. She only wears her scrubs when it’s convenient to the plot and looks really relaxed and pretty for being a nurse, so I’ll say that she’s a “nurse,” and leave it at that. Mark, I have no read on. I don’t even know if he has a job or just leaves the house for 8 hours a day and comes home at 5pm with pineapple pizza. Yes, Cody likes pineapple pizza. No, I’ve never even heard of a child who would touch anything other than cheese or pepperoni pizza, but that’s beside the point.
Horror movies are not known for having dynamic, leap-off-of-the-page type characters, so I’m not going to fault Before I Wake too much for that deficiency. My main issue is the casting of Tremblay and Bosworth. Tremblay is a gifted child actor, especially in Room, but in this role his preciousness is too evident for me to believe that he’s a naive little eight year old who doesn’t know how to pronounce “cancer.” The way his eyes smirk and his self-aware politeness just screams “kid who knows he’s on a movie set.” I’m not saying Tremblay is a bad actor, he’s certainly not, but he’s the type of child actor that should be aged up, not aged down. He’s the reverse Haley Joel Osment, shall we say.
I’ve never seen another movie with Bosworth, but from her work in this film she seems to lack the ability to express emotion. Never once do her eyes shift from a chillingly blank expression, and even her smile looks robotic. She doesn’t emote. There were scenes, especially after the introduction of the Canker Monster, where Bosworth’s life was imploding before her eyes, and she was just like “eh.” I know that Flanagan was attempting to paint her as solemn and bereft, but she just came across as icy. As the film’s other main protagonist, she needed to bring more life to her character, or at least, more responsiveness.
While there were some original ideas in the film, i.e the Canker Monster, Flanagan’s tightly wrapped resolution ended up being too sappy and too well-explained, which ended up drawing more attention to the film’s unresolved plot-lines (like WHAT THE FUCK happened to Mark? Obviously Jessie doesn’t give a damn, but I do!!!). By attempting to tie Cody’s supernatural abilities to his mother’s death from cancer (Canker Monster, Cancer Monster), Flanagan gifted the characters with a happy ending (except for Mark), but lessened the impact of the horror. Like a good joke, a horror movie is better when you don’t explain the punchline. I don’t even know if I would classify Before I Wake as a horror because it’s more of a supernatural drama and it is really, really not scary, but even so, I would have preferred to end the movie with the mystery of Cody’s abilities intact, even if that means not having a perfect resolution.
There were a lot of missed opportunities in this movie, and that comes down in large part to Flanagan’s direction. Imagine this film if it were directed by Andy Muschietti (the director of Mama) or J.A Bayona (The Orphanage). The hidden tension between Jessie and Mark and Jessie’s guilt for not saving her son from drowning could have been further explored. Additionally, the conflict between Jessie’s desire to see her dead son and Cody’s resistance to sleep could have spiraled into a dark, dark place. But unfortunately, we never got to see that film. Is it too soon to ask for a remake?
Final Consensus: Before I Wake has a novel premise, but it’s wasted under hackneyed dialogue, horror movie clichés, and weak casting. If you’re looking for a scary film, keep looking. If you’re looking for Mike Flanagan’s Lifetime Original Movie, Before I Wake might be the one for you.