Cast: Kate Bosworth, Thomas Jane, Annabeth Gish, Justin Tremblay, Dash Mihok, Courtney Bell
Director: Mark Flanagan
Mark and Jessie (Kate Bosworth and Thomas Jane) have recently suffered the loss of their young son in a freak accident. Too sad to consider having another child and yet, yearning for a family, they accept to foster an orphan named Cody (Justin Tremblay). Cody has supernatural powers, the ability to create physical constructs and figures from his dreams. His powers can summon beautiful images from his fantasies about butterflies; they can also summon images from old photographs and home video, such as a moving physical construct of the dead child lost by his foster parents. But it also brings his nightmares and repressed memories to the surface, creating a world of horror for the people around him. Before I Wake deals with a lot of challenging ideas and has characters that are morally ambiguous in a way horror protagonists rarely are. It has a few genuinely scary scenes.
Two-thirds of the movie is an entertaining, scary and interesting horror-mystery. The final thirds has elements that are unexpectedly emotional and gripping but the payoff is weak and insufficient compared to the scale of what came before.
Visually, the film is ensconced in the bag of tricks of horror films. We have a lot of POV shots, emphasising subjectivity; we have the jarring sound and music tricks, including the sudden silences and long pauses before the big scare. From The Exorcist we have the drooling and creepy children, the leathery creatures of the night.
The true strength of the film is its story. Kate Bosworth’s character is personally guilty of what her husband considers abuse, i.e., using a living child as a conduit and proxy to vicariously grieve for her dead child. Cody, the magical child, is an innocent figure, but there is one deliciously dark moment. For the most part, the boy avoids using his powers, even dangerously indulging in sleep deprivation, but on the other hand like any boy afraid and angered by bullies, he will try and respond in kind, and abuse his powers out of anger. These moments give the film moments of interest. The darkest and most tragic part of the film also comes across as a disturbing moral line crossed by the mother.
Kate Bosworth and Thomas Jane were actors who had better notices a few years ago. For the most part, the couple provides a great deal of additional complexity to their roles, which on paper could have made them satellite adjuncts to the magical child. They believably come across as a couple who are emotionally distant from each other as a result of a personal loss, but who also bring additional shades to their characters. Thomas Jane is incredibly warm as a gentle, humorous and father figure. One scene where he takes Cody out for a walk and privately shares a secret, carries it with that exchange of vulnerability and strength that comprises father-son relationships.
Kate Bosworth’s character has the more complex role, in that she has to be selfish and selfless at the same time, convey the negligence of everyday cruelty and yet be empathetic. She does this well. Formerly a rising star, she has done well in some of her recent films, namely Still Alice and the remake of Straw Dogs of 2011, and this film continues the trend.
Much like It Follows, Before I Wake is a horror movie that mixes the horror movie with elements from the independent film and the serious drama. This isn’t an attempt to take a more realistic approach to horror. We still get some of the same horror bag of tricks: the scare chords, the scenes set entirely in light; the vaguely threatening use of staircases, lonely rooms, and the scary images such as creepy flies (signifying decay). Rather it is an attempt to use genre means for serious ends.
Try and provide the same emotional catharsis that a serious drama could do within a genre construct while still delivering on all the horror chills and goosebumps. Of course, the risk of taking this approach is that you are making a movie serving two masters, and to fully succeed you must please both of them, and satisfy your audience.
Mark Flanagan, who has two additional supernatural horror films coming out in 2016, infuses this film with a lot of emotional depth but has perhaps juggled too much in a film. The effort however is commendable as there are many interesting scenes that justify the film’s ambition. It recognises that horror movies can be more, and do more, than roller-coaster biological reactions in the stomach and nerves, in this it brings forth ideas that will continue our never-ending relationships with our fears and desires.
Sudarshan Ramani is programmer, Lightcube Film Society...