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‘Doctor Sleep’ shines on

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It seems like every week sees the announcement of another screen adaptation of a Stephen King work. Hollywood has always had an affinity for King, but the proliferation of outlets has brought more and more content creators to the nigh-endless font of material that is the erstwhile Master of Horror.

But “Doctor Sleep” is a little different. The 2013 book is a sequel to King’s classic novel “The Shining,” a look at whatever happened to little Danny Torrance in the aftermath of his ordeal at the Overlook Hotel. King’s relationship with Stanley Kubrick’s film adaptation of “The Shining” is notoriously fraught; in some ways, “Doctor Sleep” was a years-later reaction to that film.

Obviously, this makes the idea of adapting “Doctor Sleep” to the screen a tricky proposition. But few are as uniquely suited to strike the proper balance as Mike Flanagan, who both directed and wrote the screenplay for the film. Flanagan’s horror bona fides are legit, but more than that, he wrote and directed one of the best King adaptations of recent years; “Gerald’s Game” was a book that seemed almost unfilmable, yet Flanagan turned it into a powerful and effective film.

Turning his eye onto “Doctor Sleep,” Flanagan’s stated goal was to do proper service to King’s book while also finding ways to pay homage to Kubrick’s iconic film. It would seem to be a Herculean task … and yet Flanagan managed to pull it off. Being all things to all people rarely works, yet here we are – a film that is true to both the spirit of the book being adapted and of the film being remembered.

Young Danny Torrance has grown up to become Dan Torrance (Ewan McGregor, “Christopher Robin”), a young man whose traumatic past and troubled relationship with his “shining” has led to a life drenched in booze and fueled by anger. He is a man not unlike the man his father was drifting from place to place, unable to find anything resembling stability. Thanks to visits from the spirit of an old friend, he’s able to hold off the Overlook’s demons that pursue him still.

But there are other sinister forces at work out there in the world. A tribe of mysterious travelers calling themselves the True Knot have been crisscrossing the country for years, stealing the shine – what they call “steam” – from any children they can find who possess it … and they do so in a decidedly gruesome manner. This steam keeps them young and vibrant. The True Knot is led by Rose the Hat (Rebecca Ferguson, “Men in Black: International”), a woman of astonishing power who leads them in the ritualized taking of steam.

Dan, seeking a new start, finds himself in the small town of Frazier, New Hampshire. Fresh off the bus, he meets Billy Freeman (Cliff Curtis, “Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs and Shaw”), a kindhearted man who takes Dan under his wing, finding him a place to stay, a job … and a spot at the local AA meeting. The job – working at a hospice – gives Dan an opportunity to use his shine for good, helping those about to pass to find peace as they make their way from this world to the next.

He also has a “pen pal” of sorts – a young lady in a nearby town whose shine almost matches the wattage his own once possessed. The two communicate through blackboard-written messages for some time, but when Rose the Hat and the rest of the True Knot catch wind of Abra (Kyliegh Curran, “I Can I Will I Did”) and her power, she is in real danger. She reaches out to Dan in hopes of getting his help.

That help means confronting forces of darkness unlike anything he has encountered since his days of staving off the sinister spirits of the Overlook that followed him for so long. But as Dan and Abra do their best to deal with the True Knot, it soon becomes clear that for them to have any hope of winning, Dan is going to have to return to the one place in this world he fears more than any other.

Striking the balance between the visceral truths of King’s work with the singular aesthetics of Kubrick’s would seem to be almost impossible, but hell, Flanagan managed to get the OK from both King and Kubrick’s estate, so impossible doesn’t seem to faze him all that much.

And make no mistake – there are moments in “Doctor Sleep” that are striking and fascinating as all get out, sequences that are unlike anything you’ve really seen before. Flanagan climbs into the sandbox and really starts digging; not only does he find some wonderful Kubrickian visual homages, he also creates some incredible scenes of his own – there are some stretches involving astral projection that are as aesthetically impressive as anything I’ve seen on a movie screen this year.

(It’s worth noting that Flanagan eschews the CGI-overlaying often used to recreate bygone characters and/or recapture youth. When he flashes back, he simply brings in actors who look the part and evoke the feeling of those who came before, rather than giving us the uncanny valley business that would only serve to distract from the story unfolding before us.)

McGregor is a solid choice for Dan; he has a wonderful knack for grounding the fantastical elements in a story like this and endowing them with real emotional heft. His Dan is broken, but not irreparably so; McGregor shows us the man both at his most flawed and at his finest. It’s a well-executed performance. Curran holds her own quite well considering the demands placed on her and the talent she’s working alongside; even amidst the darkness of her situation, her fundamental innocence never wavers. Curtis is low-key excellent; he has quietly been one of the best “That Guy” actors in the business for half-a-decade now. And Ferguson absolutely crushes, filling the screen with an ethereal menace that is uniquely and weirdly unsettling. Her cohort in the True Knot are all solid as well – Zahn McClarnon (as Crow Daddy) and Emily Alyn Lind (as Snakebite Andi) are particularly good, although they all bring something to the table.

“Doctor Sleep” is another top-tier Stephen King movie. Somehow, Mike Flanagan – who gets what makes King great perhaps more than any other current filmmaker – has tightrope-walked his way to giving everyone involved what they want. It’s a strong adaptation of the book and an engaging cinematic conversation with the film that came before. I wouldn’t have thought it possible.

Don’t sleep on “Doctor Sleep” – it shines brightly.

[5 out of 5]

Last modified on Tuesday, 12 November 2019 07:48

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