Filmmaker Mike Flanagan has truly carved out an incredible niche for himself in genre storytelling over the last decade, in terms of his ability to create powerful, emotionally driven tales of horror, with Doctor Sleep being his latest crowning achievement as one of the finest directors working today. Somehow, Flanagan manages to find the middle ground in Doctor Sleep, bringing together elements of Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of The Shining (which varies greatly from Stephen King’s novel) and the over-arching story to King’s Doctor Sleep novel in a seemingly near-impossible way that reconciles both King and Kubrick’s unique visions, plus also manages to feel wholly like a Mike Flanagan film in the end on top of it all.
Make no mistake—Doctor Sleep is an exemplary achievement in genre storytelling, and one of the most confidently crafted King adaptations of 2019 (which, considering the other King films released this year, is saying A LOT).
If you somehow are unaware of the story of Doctor Sleep, it follows Danny, now Dan, Torrance (played by Ewan McGregor) as an adult living in the shadow of the events that happened at the Overlook Hotel and the trauma he still has to live with 40 years on. At the start of the film, Dan spends most of his time drowning his pain with copious amounts of alcohol and engaging in other bad behaviors, but there’s a moment when he hits rock bottom, finds himself in New Hampshire, and is immediately befriended by Billy Freeman (Cliff Curtis), who recognizes that Dan is in desperate need of saving in a variety of ways.
As Dan gets his life on track, giving up drinking and focusing on his job as an orderly at a hospice, his abilities to “shine” begin to manifest once again in unusual ways. First, it gives him the ability to sense when one of the elderly charges at the facility he works at is about to pass away, and secondly, it becomes a psychic bridge between himself and a young girl named Abra (Kyliegh Curran), who shares in Dan’s ability to “shine.” As their friendship builds, Abra learns that there are sinister forces at work when she accidentally witnesses a group known as the True Knot killing a young boy who can also “shine.” As it turns out, the True Knot abduct those with the ability to “shine” as a means to absorb their steam, which is a psychic essence that comes about when someone with these remarkable abilities dies in pain, which helps them live out somewhat immortal lives.
The True Knot is led by Rose the Hat (Rebecca Ferguson), an intoxicatingly charismatic killer whose powers and influence are far more heightened than the other members of the True Knot. And once Rose gets wind of Abra and her psychic talents, she sets out to capture the teen so that she can absorb her immense powers, but both Abra and Dan aren’t about to let Rose and her followers win this battle between good and evil without putting up a helluva fight. And if this feels like I’ve divulged too much, trust me, this is only the tip of the proverbial iceberg when it comes to the events that unfold during Doctor Sleep’s two and a half hour runtime.
With Doctor Sleep, Flanagan had to find a way to make the events of Kubrick’s The Shining blend together with both The Shining and Doctor Sleep novels from Stephen King, which was a tricky line to walk, but Mike does it well and with great confidence here. I don’t want to get into too many specifics, because it might venture into spoiler territory for those who aren’t already familiar with the content of the book, but suffice to say, Flanagan’s decisions from a writing standpoint make perfect sense, and the changes that were made for the Doctor Sleep film work perfectly in service to the big screen experience, and also streamline some of the themes and ideas from King’s Doctor Sleep novel as well. Diehards might be a little put off by those decisions, but to me, I did not mind them whatsoever.
The performances in Doctor Sleep are, across the board, extraordinarily marvelous, with McGregor and Ferguson leading the charge. While Ewan is playing a character that has become so ingrained in the landscape of horror for 40 years now, what’s interesting is that at certain points in his adulthood, he’s not a good guy whatsoever, and it takes some time for McGregor’s character to earn his full redemption, which I think is an important aspect to the story of Doctor Sleep. Dan Torrance isn’t exactly hero material throughout most of the film, and it's his connection with Abra that makes him step into the role that Dick Hallorann (this time played by Carl Lumbly) played in his life, forcing Dan to stop being selfish and embrace the power that has made him special, especially when Abra’s life is at stake.
Ferguson, as Rose the Hat, is working on another level in Doctor Sleep, and maybe this will sound a bit hyperbolic, but I think Rose is quite possibly my favorite cinematic villain of the entire year. Between her engaging, cool-as-a-cucumber façade and her bohemian chic appearance, I will be totally honest and say that I’d let Rose the Hat kidnap me any day of the week. There’s a quiet calmness to the way that Ferguson plays the character, too, with a hidden ferocity that’s quite unnerving, especially in one scene in particular involving a young girl named Violet. Everything about the setup feels idyllic and sweet, but there’s this sense of unease rippling just beneath the surface as Rose casts her spell over the tyke, and it made me realize that some of my favorite “bad guys” are the ones you don’t always see coming.
Also, one quick aside: because the material is centered around this idea of not only putting children in peril, but doing it in very violent ways, be forewarned that if you are a parent, Doctor Sleep will definitely mess you up. As someone without kids, it’s going to be a long time until I shake off these moments myself, especially involving Jacob Tremblay’s character of the Baseball Boy.
But the show stealer here is Curran as Abra, who is an absolute revelation in Doctor Sleep, and for her to not only hold her own against her more seasoned cast mates, but in some ways totally own them with her own plucky sense of persistence, I absolutely fell in love with the young actress’ performance in the film. Beyond that, Flanagan does an admirable job of managing all of the various fascinating characters from the Doctor Sleep novel as well, really allowing for some excellent moments of greatness from the entire cast (particularly the aforementioned Curtis as Billy Freeman, and Zahn McClarnon, who plays Rose’s lover and right-hand man, Crow Daddy). Also, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the total joy that I felt when I saw Carel Struycken in Doctor Sleep, as he’s been a longtime favorite of mine (and not just because of his pitch-perfect portrayal of Lurch in the live-action Addams Family movies).
Admittedly, it was hard not to geek out during certain moments in Doctor Sleep that connected directly to the visuals and the events of The Shining, and what I also enjoyed was that there are some aspects of The Newton Brothers’ score in Flanagan’s latest that also utilize some of the musical cues from Kubrick’s film, too, which were originally composed by Wendy Carlos and Rachel Elkind. But from a narrative standpoint, these attachments end up being the least compelling aspects of the story. The real emotional stakes in Doctor Sleep are tied directly to Dan and Abra’s alliance against Rose, and the film works best when it is focused on their shared kinship. That being said, these are minor (very minor) quibbles, and from a fan standpoint, those moments still gave me chills, and I left the theater immediately wanting to revisit Kubrick’s The Shining just as soon as I could.
As a whole, with Doctor Sleep, Flanagan has assuredly crafted a compelling, heartfelt, and horrifying tale of redemption, trauma, and embracing your own sense of power, all while celebrating the works of Kubrick, King, and his own career as well (the cast list alone feels like a who’s who of Flanagan films, which was awesome). And even if you’re not someone who is well-versed in the Doctor Sleep novel, there’s still much to enjoy here if you’re simply a fan of well-made horror movies.
Movie Score: 4.5/5