Doctor Sleep (aka Stephen King’s Doctor Sleep) review by Mark McPherson - Cinema Paradiso
In 2013, Stephen King returned to The Shining by writing Doctor Sleep. The story returned with more to delve into with the Shining powers, sure, but also brilliantly weaves in issues of addiction, fear of death, and fear of being reaped of value for your talent. Now, with a film adaptation by Mike Flanagan, we return to the movie version of Shining with all its familiar cues. Thankfully, this less of a reunion and more of a merging of Stephen King’s brilliance for fear and Kubrick’s stylish take albeit conflicting with King’s vision.
We catch up with Danny after the events of The Shining, now played by Ewan McGregor. Rather than hone his powers, he tries to not only conceal it but conceal the ghosts that haunt him. His drunk and violent lifestyle leads him to the tough choice of coming to a small town to reform himself. He has some help not merely from the kindly townsfolk, willing to give him a roof over his head and AA meetings to recover, but also from another person with strong Shining power. Miles away, the teen girl Abra (Kyliegh Curran) communicates with him telepathically as a sort of shining pen pal.
But the world contains a more real horror than the mere ghosts that once haunted Danny. Rose the Hate (Rebecca Ferguson) runs a traveling folk called True Knot, a collective that survives by feasting on the powers of the shining. They’ve somewhat found the answer to immortality, realizing that consuming the souls of the shining can make them live longer. They seek out others with the power and determine whether they take them into the fold or eat their soul. A homeless hustler girl with mind-control powers to make people sleep seems perfect for the group. A talented baseball-playing kid, however, serves more as a sacrifice. Naturally, it won’t be long before Rose and her group catches up with Abra and Danny, leading to a showdown.
While that description of the story may make it sound like some sort of AKIRA style battle of psychic powers, Doctor Sleep takes care never to let its new additions and theatrics overshadow the grander themes. There’s a number of real issues and allegories present. The most obvious is Danny’s addiction to alcohol that has tarnished his view of himself. The bigger picture of the story seems to take aim at the fear of both death and difference. It’s hard not to see the clear parallel to capitalism the way the True Knot both seek to corrupt power early and then feast off their own when their number is up. It’s for this reason why the villains are more terrified than our heroes in terms of who they are. True Knot fears death and is so desperate to find more power. Danny, however, works in a hospice and has come to terms with what it means to die, no longer fearing to face the ghosts of his past.
While the film does draw much from the previous film in terms of flashbacks and some visuals, as well as the somewhat expected return to the spooky mansion, Flanagan does a strong job trying to make his film distinct from Kubrick. It’s a tough act to follow but there’s a lot of brilliant visuals to expanding on the shining lore without falling back on the more familiar mysteries. I’ve also got to mention how refreshing it is to see a film with NEW actors playing familiar characters for flashback sequences rather than falling back on CGI. Major props to the casting of Carl Lumbly, Alex Essoe, and Henry Thomas doing an amazing job subtly replicating the likes of Scatman Crothers, Shelley Duvall, and Jack Nicholson respectively.
There are real moments of terror in this picture, from the eerie lingering of paranormal powers to the very gruesome torture scene of a boy. There are very intriguing character arcs the way Danny comes to terms with mortality and Abra comes to terms with not hiding her powers. All of this contributes to a film that serves less as Shining 2 and more as a sequel worth returning to after nearly forty years.