“Before I Wake” sleepwalks away from a promising premise
A family home, a widowed mother feeling cornered by her sister's return.
A mirror, full of ghosts, and the siblings who take it back to the house where it took their parents, trying to destroy it before it possesses someone else.
A couple alone with an adopted otherworldly moppet, bringing it back to the isolated house where their child died.
Mike Flanagan likes his crucibles.
It's not surprising. He makes movies for horror fans and crucibles make for a convenient horror setup. There wouldn't be much suspense if people could easily walk away from the problem, would it?
In Before I Wake, Thomas Jane and Kate Bosworth play the Hobsons, a couple whose own kid drowned in an accident. The adoptee is Cody, an adorable, all-too-well-behaved child who you just know is hiding something – even before it the social worker talks about his string of failed adoptions. It doesn't take too long to find out what: Cody chugs energy drinks and pops caffeine pills like they're Flintstones Vitamins, trying to keep himself awake.
Strange things happen when Cody is asleep. Some of them are pleasant, colorful, things borne out of dreams. But every kid has nightmares. There be monsters.
Flanagan has a talent for tension but flounders with actors. Near the start of the movie, he shows us the Hobsons' tragedy, makes us feel the desperation of a boy who can't help himself and knows he is dying. It lasts only a few seconds, but it adds weight to the Hobsons' situation in a way that ten minutes of character discussion wouldn't – particularly considering how Jane and Bosworth phone in their performances.
Before I Wake gets the cat out of the bag right away and starts flinging it around. Characters pick up on what's up immediately. It avoids those annoying moments where you just know someone who had seen at least a couple of horror films would have saved themselves a lot of grief. Instead, it uses that same character knowledge, the normalization of the unreal, a grasp for how to play with the rules of the supernatural, to fuel one of the most uncomfortable behaviors one could expect from a grieving parent.
If only Jane didn't sleepwalk through the whole movie, or Bosworth hadn't become a discount Rachel McAdams.
At least that lets secondary players a chance to shine. Jacob Tremblay plays Cody with a light touch that's surprising in someone so young. The kid is too cute by half – he'll be playing a serial killer in no time flat. Dash Mihok, who I've seen in at least a dozen movies but never noticed, is a bundle of raw nerves and gets to deliver one of the movie's best lines (”I wouldn't say that around here. They'll fit you for slippers”).
It just doesn't come together. It's not only the leads who are to blame, though. The monster's origin feels arbitrary, its moniker something retrofitted because they felt a thriller needs some sort of revelation. It all leads to an ending that, had the actors been better, could have had the weight of two people brought together by tragedy yet managing to find a way forward.
It doesn't. The whole thing instead feels like a kludge, the tacked-on optimism half contrarianism and half pandering. Not every horror movie involving children needs to be The Babadook, but it wouldn't hurt for them to try for its single-mindedness.