The Shining is my favorite horror film of all-time; it’s a timeless masterpiece that’s so inked in detail that its hidden meanings are still up for debate today. It’s also somewhat controversial within the world of Stephen King adaptations, and the ongoing debates regarding both King and Kubrick’s interpretations will forever be linked to the film. With Doctor Sleep, the adaptation of King’s sequel to his own novel, there comes the expectations of both artists and the pressure to live up to each distinct vision.
Doctor Sleep is much more King than Kubrick; it’s a film very interested in mythology and world building, and while there are echoes of the creeping tension found in the deterioration of Jack Torrance’s mind, this is an unabashed fantasy adventure mystery that doesn’t pander with more obvious scares. I appreciate the willingness to delve into the minutia of King’s material, but at a towering 153 minute runtime it’s often a film that feels short on story.
Decades have passed since the Torrances first visited the Overlook, and a grown up Danny (Ewan McGregor) has struggled with forgetting the complicated figure that was his father. Death haunts Danny, and having felt so close to death all those years ago has made it hard for him to cope with its finality, causing Danny to spiral into alcoholism. Magic is now something Danny has come to accept, and uses for things as simple as reminding a neighbor about chores, but a dark cult of magic users called the True Knot, led by the enigmatic Rose (Rebecca Ferguson), once again draws Danny into a darker world.
The most debated aspect of this film will most likely be the characterization of Danny. It goes without saying that Ewan McGregor is fantastic and is able to hide a quiet trauma within Danny’s reluctance to see the mystical, but often it’s a character that feels cold and distant. It takes a long time for Danny to enter into the main story, and while there are flashbacks with a younger Danny that paint how he’s changed in the thirty years since we last saw him, Danny’s decisions at the film’s climactic finale feel as if they could have more weight behind them.
Similar to the other major King adaptation this year, It Chapter Two, this is a long movie that takes awhile to get going. It’s not at first clear who the main character is, but through a slow first act we gradually are introduced to Abra Stone (Kyliegh Curran), a middle school girl who also has “The Shining.” Like Danny, she’s crushed by the weight of hearing voices around her and seeing the lives in danger, and the connection between the two and their mystical communication is one of the film’s best aspects. Abra is only briefly introduced in an early origin scene before disappearing for a good chunk, but once she and Danny begin to learn from each other the film goes from atmospheric to exhilarating.
Alongside Danny and Abra, there’s an equal amount of attention devoted to the True Knot, the evil magic users that feed off of the life force of others in order to live for centuries. This group is filled with marvelous character actors (Twin Peaks‘s Carel Struycken! Westworld‘s Zahn McClaron!), and we get a sense of how this group operates through the introduction of a new member Andi in an effective scene that explores the group’s motivation for stealing life and their revolving mortality.
That being said, the group is only as strong as its leader, and I was truly blown away by Rebecca Ferguson’s performance as Rose. Rose couldn’t be any more different than Jack Torrance; her emotions are always hidden and the creepy grace with which Ferguson carries herself is both mysterious and menacing. This is a film with a relatively low kill count, and I think it’s fair to criticize the lack of tension in the early parts of the film, but Ferguson’s performance and the mystery behind it are at least able to drive the narrative until Danny and Abra become introduced to the larger magical world.
The slower pace early on actually leads me to what I think is the film’s greatest strength: director Mike Flanagan. When looking past the “King vs. Kubrick” debate, it’s important to note the impact of Flanagan, whose quietly been building a solid repertoire of horror stories, and with Doctor Sleep he’s created a visually enticing, moody tone that builds an entire world based on what “The Shining” would look like if it weren’t confined to one hotel. While I’ve criticized the first act’s mostly unsuccessful attempts to build sympathy for Danny, the scenes of Danny getting a job, joining a support group, and discovering Abra risk being really dull, and I credit Flanagan for making such a solid foundation.
Of course, we know where the story is going, and although the film runs the risk of exploiting the imagery from The Shining for the sake of nostalgia bait, there’s enough clues and hints early on to suggest that the Overlook is both the beginning and end of Danny’s story. The flashbacks to scenes from The Shining and recreation of the Overlook feels much more molded in the minutia of King’s world-building, but it never feels exploitive of Kubrick’s work and still feels like it could exist within the same canon. The mystery of the Overlook still exists, and one of the film’s smartest decisions is to make the Overlook itself a character; even in a world where magic exists, the Overlook remains a place out of time that can’t be defined by any traditional logic.
It’s interesting to see how this take differs from The Shining, and while it’s unfair to compare Doctor Sleep to one of the greatest films ever made, I think there are some things that Doctor Sleep could’ve carried over. In The Shining each scene progresses the tension of this breaking family dynamic, and in Doctor Sleep there seems to be a real distinction between the character development scenes and the world-building scenes. While these films are similar in length, the limited scope of The Shining is one that allows for a deeper look at each characters, and despite it’s massive runtime, Doctor Sleep also feels spread thin with its attempts to build a larger world.
I left Doctor Sleep impressed by the tone, the direction, and the creativity of how the magical interactions worked, but despite some great performances the characters often feel secondary. There’s a lot of intersting ideas about the permanence of death and what it means to different people, and while I don’t think the film ever culminates into a strong thesis, it has enough striking visuals and creative mind games to keep the entertainment value high. Doctor Sleep won’t be remembered for 40 years like its predecessor, but it’s a engaging companion piece to The Shining that interprets its legacy as the first drop of madness in a crazy world. Grade: B