Director Mike Flanagan faced a nearly insurmountable challenge when he was tasked with directing “Doctor Sleep,” the adaptation of Stephen King’s best-selling novel and the sequel to Stanley Kubrick’s horror classic, “The Shining.” In all of Hollywood’s history, perhaps the most public clash of creative difference occurred between King and Kubrick in the making of “The Shining” in 1980.
It’s been well-documented that the famous writer did not appreciate Kubrick’s deviations on his praised work. Kubrick’s psychological study leaned away from King’s supernatural horror, changing crucial plot points and elements.
All of this makes Flanagan’s “Doctor Sleep” all the more fascinating. Not only did Flanagan have to adapt the film’s source material, he also had to honor King’s original piece inside the same visual texture of Kubrick’s classic. Does it work? Oh, yeah.
“Doctor Sleep” flawlessly combines its three influences in one triumphant return back to the chills of the Overlook Hotel.
Picking up decades after the grim events at the Overlook, “Doctor Sleep” finds Dan Torrance (Ewan McGregor) a scarred alcoholic running from his past. Haunted by his childhood trauma, Dan lives a very lonely life, drifting from place to place. When a nefarious nomadic cult — which feeds off of people with the psychic ability to “Shine” — finds a young girl named Abra (Kyliegh Curran) who can “Shine” even stronger than he ever could, Dan must overcome his inner demons to protect her from harm.
“Doctor Sleep” may be centered on the familiar character of Dan Torrance, but the film is spearheaded by three separate protagonists. Dan, Abra and Rose the Hat (Rebecca Ferguson), the leader of the nomadic cult of Shiners, each drive the plot forward separately toward a massive collision course. Much like a novel or a miniseries, the film takes its time to put its pieces in place as the momentum builds further and further, pulling no punches. However, the finale is more than worth the wait.
One of the greatest strengths of the film is in the fantastic lead performances. McGregor is brutally riveting in his portrayal of an older, haunted Dan Torrance. McGregor brings an authenticity to his performance that feels true to the young kid seen in Kubrick’s film, yet he adds new layers to the character. Newcomer Curran also does a terrific job as the brave Abra Stone, creating an engaging young protagonist to root for. Lastly, Ferguson may even steal the show with her electrifying and creepy Rose the Hat; her singular performance earns significantly more screen time than the average movie villain.
From the opening sequence, Flanagan makes his intent clear to honor the “old,” yet offer something “new.” Flanagan makes sure the film takes its time to build new expansions on the narrative before returning to the classic setting of the original. He still gives fans what they want with authentic production design and shot-by-shot homages to Kubrick’s original; however, the film truly stands on its own as a separate piece with its own novelty, which serves as a fitting companion to its predecessor. Flanagan’s dialogue and editing feel very Kubrick-esque, but with his own flair to it. The cinematography genuinely tries to make every shot artistic and meaningful, giving the film distinct artistry. Finally, the Newton Brothers create a chilling score, which knows just when to cue the original theme to a thrilling effect.
For all these technical triumphs, perhaps the greatest achievement of the film is in the subject matter itself. “Doctor Sleep” tells a very honest depiction of sobriety, trauma and PTSD. The film’s horror elements work wonderfully in parallel to Dan’s struggle with alcoholism and the shadow of his father. Sometimes abuse and trauma only leads to the same cycle, and it is nice to see big studio films depict that unflinchingly.
While Kubrick’s “The Shining” was going deeper and deeper into someone’s inner madness, Flanagan’s “Doctor Sleep” is about someone finding a way out of that darkness towards something more peaceful, whatever that may be. This alone makes “Doctor Sleep” one of the best films of the year.