I wish all shelved projects aged as finely as Mike Flanagan’s Before I Wake. From start to finish, there’s little chance you’ll find a more emotionally-charged narrative nightmare this year. In the same week that Paddington 2 reduced me to happy-go-lucky tears, Before I Wake’s weepy finale creeps up in a way that recent horror films have failed to replicate with even half the proficiency. A broken family striving to repair, a child with fable-like powers, a kaleidoscope of butterflies that can form into one ghostly boogeyman – these are the unexpectedly memorable workings that progress Flanagan’s harmoniously affecting lullaby.
Jessie (Kate Bosworth) and Mark (Thomas Jane) are new foster parents who welcome little Cody (Jacob Tremblay) into their home. It’s revealed that Jessie and Mark’s first son – Sean – drowned in a horrible bathtub accident, after which Jessie discovered she could not conceive again. It’s also revealed that Cody hides a tremendous gift, in that he can project his dreams into reality while asleep. Jessie manipulates Cody’s memory so Sean can once again walk through her home (closure through living home movies), but a Slender Man lookin’ ghoul who also inhabits Cody’s slumberland playground reveals himself as an unwanted guest- this “Canker Man.” Can Jessie erase the Canker Man and help Cody, or did she just knowingly doom her household by allowing a malevolent demon inside?
Pacing remains vital in Before I Wake, since Flanagan wastes no time materializing a gorgeous bouquet of rainbow-colored flutterers inside Jessie and Mark’s home. This wonderous atmosphere brings such happiness; the glisten in both Jessie and Mark’s eye soothes with warmth – and then Canker Man appears in a passing background flash. Environmental doom clashes with altruistic hope in a way that evokes the highest moods of rewarding horror watches, played without secrecy in front out our faces. No hiding in shadows or stashing creatures away for end-credits payoffs. It’s a respectful gesture to audiences that allows Flanagan to reach tremendous depth while ignoring generic “tricks.”
Jacob Tremblay’s performance is sophisticated and mature, but still so innocently wide-eyed. His orphan boy, Cody, is haunted by Canker Man in his sleep, so nights are typically spent chugging sodas or other caffeinated beverages to keep awake. He’s afraid, curious, but also sneakily self-aware, prodding questions about Sean when trying to throw attention from a Canker Man attack or mythology reveals. Tremblay commands scenes with the stature of an adult ten times his size, whether he’s running from a grey, soulless dream devourer or conveying the joy of having just one normal day with a family who loves him. Pint-sized, but unmistakably one-of-a-kind.
Credit Bosworth for her portrayal of Jessie as well, a mother searching for answers who becomes more crushingly genuine the more we learn about her motivations. Cody’s adoption was no fluke – she used a scared child for his unprecedented gift. Prices are paid and yarns of lore are unwound, but Bosworth’s handling of her character’s complexities is so invaluably honest. Jessie’s explanation of *everything* to Cody – who the Canker Man is, why Cody imagines this beast as he does, what resides in his memory that recalls butterflies – will stand as one of the year’s more dramatic, bleary-eyed moments in cinema. Thomas Jane is equally forgiving in his fatherly position, but Bosworth’s journey is so very rich with explorations of grief and personal imprisonment – a genre seed that blossoms with touching optimism.
I’m being purposefully vague about what causes the Canker Man to appear, but some internal questions do arise given what Cody’s imagination is able to accomplish – specifically, who he can “take.” We’re continually reminded about how there’s no telling what the boy’s abilities are capable of – an important message that insists every child deserves to be loved (even with demonic baggage) – but some may take issue with a few open-ended plotting asks. For me? It’s enough to fear Canker Man every night; his greyish, eyeless form and bald dome stalking those who’ve entered Cody’s life. The horrors are there and humans find themselves part of Cody’s visions, because you’re at the mercy of a child whose own comprehension is suspect in itself. In this world, with this execution, it’s more than substantial.
Before I Wake is a beautiful, meditative ghost story with one of the more rewarding horror payoffs I’ve seen in years. Flanagan has done this before – pushed past a film’s throwaway conclusion point to offer an actual wrap-up (Gerald’s Game) – but never with such punch. This is a wholesome, start-to-finish fantasy that blends the macabre and mystifying with blackened sincerity. No longer do we have to wonder about what may or may not be held in Mike Flanagan’s long-lost creation, and what a discovery it becomes. Between Creep 2 and Before I Wake, Netflix is doing wonders for original horror releases these last few weeks.