Review: 'Doctor Sleep' a hopeful, deliberate sequel of 'The Shining'
I haven’t seen nearly as many films throughout 2019 as I might have liked, but what I have seen has left me largely uninspired — nothing awful, but also nothing to get me all that excited. The sole exception so far has been Lulu Wang’s phenomenal “The Farewell.” So color me both astonished and elated that “Doctor Sleep” has become only the second film this year that I really, truly love.
Much of my astonishment derives from the fact that “Doctor Sleep” simply should not work. The film is based on Stephen King’s 2013 sequel to his much earlier and more well-known novel, “The Shining,” itself adapted by director Stanley Kubrick into what is widely regarded as one to the finest horror films ever made. After the immense success of the 2017 version of “It,” another King adaptation, it’s unsurprising that Warner Brothers agreed to greenlight “Doctor Sleep.” One small problem, though: Stephen King has hated Kubrick’s adaptation of “The Shining” from day one, deriding it for its substantial narrative and thematic deviations from his original book.
Thus, in making “Doctor Sleep,” writer-director-editor Mike Flanagan had to either faithfully adapt King’s novel or diverge substantially so as to rely on audiences’ familiarity with the Kubrick film. The problem with the first option is that it basically involves making a sequel to a film version of “The Shining” that no one has seen because it doesn’t exist. The problem with the second option is that trying to make a direct sequel to a Kubrick film is bound to be one of the most thankless tasks in film history.
Although Flanagan and his producers have played things ambiguous in the press, make no mistake: “Doctor Sleep” picks the latter, riskier option — fully situating itself within the world of Kubrick’s film. To be clear, even when I was in high school and way more obsessed with Kubrick than I am now, “The Shining” was never one of my favorite films of his. To call it proficient on a technical level would be a gross understatement. But the film deals with a sort of existential horror that can feel a little too esoteric when you’re a teenager. Thus, I was skeptical of “Doctor Sleep” opting to be a direct sequel, not because I hold Kubrick’s film in such reverence, but because its imagery and scenes are so culturally iconic.
For the uninitiated, “The Shining” is set in 1980 and follows the Torrance family as they take up residence as the winter caretakers of the Overlook Hotel. The son, Danny, has telepathic abilities referred to as “the shining,” which quickly attracts the attention of the ghosts that haunt the Overlook. In time, the hotel turns Danny’s alcoholic father, Jack, insane; the story ends with Jack, who ultimately dies, terrorizing his wife and son, who barely escape with their lives. “Doctor Sleep” picks up 40 years later and follows an adult Danny as he struggles with alcoholism and trauma. He eventually makes the acquaintance of Abra Stone, a girl with vastly more powerful shining abilities. She accidentally attracts the attention of the True Knot, a cult led by Rose the Hat who achieve immortality by murdering and feeding on the life force of people with the shining. Thus, Dan must protect Abra from Rose and her gang while also confronting his own demons.
At two-and-a-half hours, my only real complaint about “Doctor Sleep” is that it’s too long. The first act takes its time to kick into gear, and once you get to the ending, you’ve practically forgotten what happened at the beginning. Flanagan’s decision to restage certain scenes from “The Shining” with similar-looking actors, rather than using footage from the original film, is also somewhat odd. It can be distracting at first, but I’d argue it has a purpose. So much of “Doctor Sleep” is about confronting our memories that it makes sense that the flashbacks to events from “The Shining” look like someone’s memory of Kubrick’s film, instead of the actual film itself.
Indeed, every filmmaking choice made by Flanagan feels deliberate in the best way possible. Few films in recent years have been directed with such patience and confidence. Yet “Doctor Sleep” also never comes across as pretentious; Flanagan just knows what story he wants to tell and, more importantly, he knows exactly how he wants to tell it. Moreover, he is ably assisted by a cohort of supremely talented artists. The music by the Newton Brothers is haunting; Michael Fimognari’s cinematography is astonishingly beautiful and worth the price of admission all on its own; and whoever did the set design for the recreated Overlook Hotel should just get all the Oscars right now.
It also doesn’t hurt that the actors are uniformly excellent. Ewan McGregor is suitably understated as Danny. As written, the character risks coming across as unlikeable, but McGregor always manages to foreground the trauma that defines Danny, even while embracing his uglier side. Cliff Curtis has a welcome supporting turn as Danny’s best friend, Billy, Zahn McClarnon makes for an intimidating supporting villain, and Carl Lumbly admirably fills the shoes left by Scatman Crothers as Dick Hallorann, Danny’s mentor. However, the real showstoppers are Kyliegh Curran as Abra and Rebecca Ferguson as Rose. Curran is a revelation, demonstrating a remarkable versatility; many of the film’s most challenging beats rely on her, and she navigates them fearlessly. Meanwhile, Ferguson is utterly fascinating as Rose, playing her as part-hippie, part-mystic, part-seductress and part-sadist, but always with an off-kilter sense of humor. I’m honestly still trying to parse exactly what Ferguson is doing with the character, but I do know that the effect is weirdly magnetic, resulting in an unforgettable villain.
Of course, all of this craftsmanship would be for naught if “Doctor Sleep” lacked thematic depth or nuance. Quite the opposite: The film is exceptionally contemplative. Indeed, “Doctor Sleep” isn’t really a horror film; rather than attempting to recreate the horrors of Kubrick’s work, Flanagan opts to revisit them, meditating on their impact and legacy both for the characters and for pop culture at large. If there is a horror at the heart of “Doctor Sleep,” it has nothing to do with ghosts or child-killing cults — although those are both suitably unnerving.
Rather, the film’s true horror is its unflinching examination of intergenerational trauma and our attempts to cope with and accept death. I can think of very few films — certainly recent films — which so overtly demand that the spectator contemplate their own mortality. As with all of the best speculative fiction, the ghosts, ghouls and supernatural powers in “Doctor Sleep” are all rather unsubtle metaphors for trauma, depression, alcoholism, repressed memories and, ultimately, hope.
According to both King and star Jack Nicholson, Kubrick is known to have once said of “The Shining,” “Anything that says there’s anything after death is ultimately an optimistic story.” Curiously, though, his version of “The Shining” is decidedly pessimistic, far more so than King’s original novel. While I certainly don’t want to spoil anything, it’s telling that “Doctor Sleep” manages to cut the difference. Flanagan makes it clear that trauma does not simply just go away; it persists and must be endlessly negotiated. But whereas Kubrick ends “The Shining” by trapping the audience and the characters in a seemingly unbreakable circle, “Doctor Sleep” suggests that perhaps, 40 years later, we can all — characters and audience alike — escape and find some peace.