Doctor Sleep movie review: a reckoning with the ghosts of the past

MaryAnn’s quick take: A wonderfully unexpected sort of horror movie, beautiful and delicate, but unsettling, too, with an authentic plausibility to the dichotomy between the invented uncanny and the human response to it.
I’m “biast” (pro): love Ewan McGregor; big Stephen King fan
I’m “biast” (con): not sure we needed a sequel to The Shining
I have not read the source material
(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)
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Did we need a sequel to The Shining, Stephen King’s 1977 novel or Stanley Kubrick’s iconic 1980 movie mounting of it? I would have said no. Doctor Sleep is, at least, based on a new-ish (2013) novel by King (that is to say, this sequel is not the invention of a non-King mind), but that’s nothing to get excited about lately: Hollywood’s recent attempts to bring the writer’s work to the big screen have been underwhelming, and that’s me being kind. (Looking at you, Pet Sematary and both chapters of It.) And then Sleep is two and a half hours long, which doesn’t bode well for a smart adaptation of any novel: such length is too often the result of lazy, slavish indulgence of the source material rather than the judicious pruning of it a film version requires. (Honestly, most novels provide simply too much story for a single film, not that that stops anyone.)

Doctor Sleep Ewan McGregor
Danny Torrance, inadvertently walking in his father’s footsteps…

So I settled in, expecting a cinematic endurance test, accompanied by much rolling of eyes and glancing at watch. And… I was stunned and delighted to discover that that never happened. Screenwriter and director Mike Flanagan (Oculus) has made a film that is actually beautiful and unexpectedly delicate — when can that ever be said about this genre?! — one that defies current Hollywood notions of what constitutes “horror.” Hell, in some ways it defies current Hollywood notions of what constitutes a movie. I mean that in the best way. I mean that in a way that sucked me right in, made me feel — oddly and a little disconcertingly, given the subject matter — right at home. This is a movie that is the exact opposite of an endurance test. It’s a movie that I could have watched forever.

Flanagan takes his time introducing us to his characters and their world, lets them breathe and live and just be in their skins, yet is never less than totally engaging while doing so. You should be wondering (and maybe some viewers will?), When will The Movie start? And instead I, at least, was all: I like these people and am fascinated by them, and I am happy to spend time with them. It is simultaneously shocking and a huge relief to see a movie — not an arthouse movie, not a movie intended as anything other than solid popcorn entertainment — that doesn’t feel the need to rush, to jump right into plot-plot-plot. It feels… grownup. In a way that too few movies bother with nowadays.

Doctor Sleep takes its time introducing us to its characters and their world, lets them breathe and live and just be in their skins…

It’s a solid hour into Doctor Sleep before anything approaching movie-movie “horror” happens. It’s at least that long before you start to grasp how seemingly divergent story threads are going to interact, what these characters — who are not yet even aware of one another’s existence — are going to mean to one another, and even whether anyone is solidly villainous. (Not a spoiler: There are villains. But they are more richly drawn, even more disturbingly empathetic, if only a little, than the genre usually bothers with.)

Not that there isn’t plenty unsettling here! For this is the tale of Danny Torrance — that’s right, the little boy from The Shining — now all grown up, and not coping at all well with the legacy of what happened in that remote, snowed-in hotel in the Colorado Rockies when he was a little boy. Much of the early bits of Doctor Sleep are given over to adult Danny’s navigation of his own trauma, self-medicating (with alcohol; shades of his father; but also shades of too many sad people who don’t even have ghosts stalking them) the PTSD that has come from his paranormal ability to communicate with the dead, his “shining.” (FYI, I think you’ll be fine with this movie even if you’ve never read The Shining or seen the 1980 movie, but of course having both under your belt will make for a richer experience here. I’ve read the novel and seen the first film, though it’s been a very long time since either. But I was never lost or confused.)

Doctor Sleep Kyliegh Curran Rebecca Ferguson
Feminine magic is powerful magic…

The terror in Doctor Sleep isn’t merely “psychological” in that sense that has come to mean “springing from the sorts of terrible existential fears that keep you awake at night, rather than from graphic depictions of blood and gore,” but of a deeply humane, even mundane sort. This is a story in which the paranormal isn’t “weird,” per se, more a metaphor for those keeping-you-awake dreads, just part of the human experience, and often a sympathetically painful one. Ewan McGregor (Beauty and the Beast, T2 Trainspotting), as the adult Danny, turns in one of his best performances in absolute ages…not that he’s ever been an actor who doesn’t always find a credible groundedness in his characters and a generosity toward them, even if the movies around him don’t always deserve the effort. But here, he brings a tender, well, silkiness to Danny’s distress: perhaps the most unnerving aspect of Doctor Sleep is how McGregor draws us so profoundly into Danny’s suffering, makes it so plausible even as the cause of it is entirely fantastical. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a story do better at making the fictional dichotomy between the invented uncanny and the human response to it feels so real.

Anyway, Danny finds a way to manage the supernatural shit he has to deal with — the title of the movie refers to part of it, but I won’t spoil — but then he encounters, supernaturally, a tween girl, Abra Stone (newbie Kyliegh Curran, who almost steals the movie from McGregor), who shares his “talent” for the “shining” and, because of it, is being targeted by a group of supernaturally talented people led by “Rose the Hat” (Rebecca Ferguson [Men in Black: International, Mission: Impossible – Fallout], who is… chilling) who prey on children like Abra because…

Doctor Sleep Ewan McGregor Kyliegh Curran
You can check out of the Overlook Hotel anytime you like, but can you ever leave?

Well. Doctor Sleep continues to be an unfamiliar sort of horror movie, not least because it busts a longstanding taboo of the genre, the one that says that there should be no depiction of children being hurt or killed onscreen. That… happens here. (My goodness, but Jacob Tremblay [Good Boys, The Predator] is surely one of our most astonishing young actors at the moment.) And it is deeply awful. As it should be. But it never feels exploitive. It feels exactly as horrific as it should.

Doctor Sleep is too straightforward in style, too free of pretense and artsiness to be called Kubrickian — and it seems obvious there was no attempt on Flanagan’s part to even aim for such a mood — but this seems a worthy follow-up to the 1980 film nevertheless. There’s an honesty here that feels rare for a horror film, an undismissableness that cements the strange and supernatural as undeniably authentic. Usually we have to suspend our disbelief to buy into a movie like Doctor Sleep. The fact that that seems unnecessary here? That’s really scary.

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Mon, Aug 23, 2021 4:58am

“too free of pretense and artsiness to be called Kubrickian — and it seems obvious there was no attempt on Flanagan’s part to even aim for such a mood”

I’m sorry, what? The entire last hour of the movie was practically a shot-for-shot recreation of the highlights of Kubrick’s movie, and it completely killed my interest. The first half was great, but it diverged from the book (which I loved) quite a bit in the second half. I might not have minded that if it did something original, but instead it just xeroxed a previous movie in a way that struck me as lazy.

Anyway, I personally did think we needed a sequel to The Shining- the original builds up how important Danny would be in the future, and I wanted to see what that future would be like. We got the sequel I wanted on paper. On film, not so much. But then I was never very fond of Kubrick’s movie in the first place.

reply to  Jurgan
Mon, Aug 23, 2021 5:14am

You’ve no doubt heard that Stephen King hated _The Shining_. Interestingly enough, he liked the sequel so much that it made him regard the original more fondly.

At the very least, it kind of justified not blowing up the Overlook at the end of the first one. While the book was far superior to the movie, it’s not all that exciting to return to a haunted … campground.

MaryAnn Johanson
reply to  Jurgan
Mon, Aug 23, 2021 1:47pm

Yes, the film does recreate some settings from The Shining, but not, I felt, in an imitative way.

Obvs, your mileage varies. :-)