Director – Mike Flanagan
Cast – Ewan McGregor, Rebecca Ferguson, Kyliegh Curran, Carl Lumbly, Cliff Curtis
Doctor Sleep is an ambitious film undone by a bloated length and director Mike Flanagan’s overeagerness to serve two imposing masters. The spectres of both Stephen King and Stanley Kubrick loom large, constantly at odds with one another, their decades-long duel seemingly never having ended.
King was famously disapproving of Kubrick’s adaptation of The Shining, describing him as a man who ‘thinks too much and feels too little’. In Doctor Sleep, which is as much a sequel to The Shining as it is an adaptation of King’s follow-up novel, Flanagan attempts to mediate the tension between the two icons.
Watch the Doctor Sleep trailer here
Unfortunately, he does this not by arranging for a polite discussion or by scheming a forced embrace, but by keeping them at an arm’s length from each other. Half the film plays like a grim sequel to The Shining, tracing a now grown-up Danny Torrance’s story as he learns to live with the trauma inflicted upon him as a child; the trauma that continues to haunt and cripple him as an adult. The other half delves into the mythology of the world, populated by gifted individuals with supernatural abilities, and a hat-wearing cult that harvests their powers in exchange for immortality.
Aside from a couple of moments, these parallel plot lines never really converge into a satisfying whole. Flanagan instead cuts between them, building towards an epic showdown that ultimately requires you to bear with over two hours of dense storytelling.
This image released by Warner Bros. Pictures shows Ewan McGregor in a scene from Doctor Sleep.
King was critical of Kubrick’s omission of his novel’s supernatural themes in The Shining; the filmmaker chose instead to focus on the psychological fallout of a man’s descent into madness. Because Kubrick ‘couldn’t grasp the sheer inhuman evil of The Overlook Hotel’, King speculated, he transformed the story into a domestic tragedy. Doctor Sleep doubles down on the supernatural, invoking ghosts from the past and establishing an intricate mythology surrounding the power Danny calls ‘The Shine’.
After a cult of quasi-immortals called the True Knot, led by a woman called Rose the Hat, goes on a murderous spree targeting individuals with The Shine, a young girl with particularly enhanced abilities contacts Danny, seeking his help in bringing the cult down.
Flanagan has already established his fondness for both King and Kubrick with The Haunting of Hill House, the tremendous Netflix series that blended classic King themes with a Kubrickian aesthetic. But in his preoccupation to arrange for a truce, he loses sight of his own individuality. Fans of his work, however, will recognise a familiar colour palette, as well as his admirable ability to avoid jump scares. His film is in many ways like the recent It Chapter Two, about characters confronting their past, challenging it, and learning to let it go.
This image released by Warner Bros. Pictures shows in a scene from Stephen King’s Doctor Sleep.
Unlike the draining CGI-slugfest at the end of It 2, however, Doctor Sleep concludes with a truly memorable final act that is sure to send cinema geeks into a tizzy. Flanagan painstakingly recreates the iconic interiors of the Overlook Hotel, evoking but never mimicking Kubrick’s tone and visuals. The famous hexagons on the carpet are tread upon, the door of Room 237 is opened (and closed), and pastel-coloured toilets are revisited. Danny, at one point, wields an axe, and in one incredible sequence meets a certain someone I can’t possibly reveal here.
It’s so refreshing to see a filmmaker use old-school tricks, and not rely on digital wizardry to tell his story. Computer-generated environments could have never captured the endless misery of the Overlook’s grand lobby, or the eeriness of its elevators. And digitally de-aged actors can never bring the honesty that Ewan McGregor brings to his performance as a defeated, but still resilient Danny.
There is a great movie inside Doctor Sleep somewhere, but just like the decency inside Danny Torrance’s heart, it perhaps needed to be coaxed out.