Underwhelming Performances and Storytelling Hold ‘Before I Wake’ Back from Surprise Success

History and conventional wisdom tell us that when a studio finally releases a film after having it on the shelf for so long, it must be terrible. No other logic applies; there simply isn’t any other possibility. Though this is usually the case, there are particular circumstances that defy this mode of reasoning. In Before I Wake’s case, it was an unfortunate combination of Relativity Media filing for bankruptcy and the company possibly not believing in a good enough performance to offset its costs, minimal as they may have been. The movie was scheduled four different times before it was pulled entirely. Any of those four dates would have put it in direct or indirect competition with the likes of Avengers: Age of UltronMad Max: Fury RoadPitch Perfect 2Hotel Transylvania 2The Jungle Book and/or Sully.

It’s also just as possible Relativity didn’t fully realize what they had. Between the first trailer and its theatrical release poster, Before I Wake was advertised as if it were any other supernatural horror flick. Brooding atmosphere? Check. Creepy creatures/figures lurking obfuscated in the background? Check. Brief teases of jump scare? You bet. No wonder the film essentially vanished; forgotten even to those who would have first seen the trailer nearly three years ago.

Those outside of the U.S. who would have seen it theatrically, however, back in 2016 or 2017 would have seen a slightly different story to the one so overwhelmingly suggested. Directed by Mike Flanagan, who you may remember for directing and co-writing Netflix genre favorites Hush and Gerald’s Game, the film contains an admittedly intriguing premise. Kate Bosworth and Thomas Jane star as parents whose first child tragically drowned in their home, and luckily become the new adoptive parents to Cody (Jacob Tremblay), a sweet, well-mannered young boy with his own disheartening history. It doesn’t take long for the two to realize Cody isn’t any other child. When he sleeps, and until he awakes, the objects of his dreams come to life. Unfortunately, so too do the monsters of his nightmares.

Based upon that brief summary, this doesn’t sound like the usual hauntings that occur in more generic pictures, in which the constant, pervasive supernatural threat that symbolizes unaddressed trauma progressively invades the lives and psyches of its targets, leading to a momentous final act and climax that vanquishes the spirit and alleviates the hurt and tension causing the antagonists to act so malevolently. In fact, in this case, eliminating the threat means eliminating the source, and so the film enters a subversive moral quandary that questions whether or not killing off Cody is a justifiable act. And though the plot may contain some requisite jump scares that make the film occasionally seem familiar, Before I Wake’s premise indelibly changes how its narrative is structured.

To make it really work, you don’t need scares, but rather a sufficient atmosphere and tonal consistency that draws us into these characters, their relationships to one another and how they react to such extraordinary circumstances given their past. It’s refreshing to see a film some might initially write off as formulaic display more ambition than the next flick – including Relativity’s own The Disappointments Room, which took over Before I Wake’s last gasp September 9th, 2016 release slot. And appropriately, with such a strong emotional core in theory, Flanagan and writing partner Jeff Howard completely abandon the typical final act structure with a scene that reaches for emotional satisfaction and resolution. Unfortunately, the film still comes up short.

The most crucial components to making that moment and overall atmosphere richly felt are well-written characters and dynamics, as well as performances sufficiently capable of making it all feel genuine, and the film is relatively lacking in both. Cody is a protagonist that’s alright to leave a little broad as long as you adequately elucidate his backstory and subsequent motivations because the film isn’t really about him; rather the focus is and should be on his adoptive parents Jessie (Bosworth) and Mark Hobson (Jane). Specifically, because the film rightly asserts that grief differently affects people, the narrative sets the couple up as potentially opposing viewpoints as to how best handle lingering trauma and, ultimately, how they react to Cody’s gift and its capabilities. The movie even explicitly states that Jessie and Mark have felt distant from each other since their first son died.

The problem – or rather, one of them – is that we never see this divide verbally expressed, or even spatially through staging and cinematography until one particular scene nearly half of the way through. With Bosworth’s Jessie as the focal point and Jane’s Mark left comparatively to the wayside as far as development is concerned, there’s never a true thrust or conflict during the plot’s meandering through the first and second acts, and the pacing suffers as a result. Though Mark represents a wasted opportunity for intensely felt drama and conflict that lends itself to the horror, even Jessie doesn’t eventually go unscathed as her own progression becomes stifled come the final act, which could have had a greater impact considering its content had that not been the case.

That Bosworth and Jane lend equally underwhelming performances is a saddening death blow to what could have been 2018’s – technically – first pleasant surprise. You can’t say their turns are particularly bad, as they often exhibit understanding of the narrative’s gravity as well as its subtext, but at times, it feels as though they aren’t hitting the marks they ought to in order to make certain scenes ring with a greater punch. Certainly, there’s a balance that should be struck between understated and exuberant emotional displays, veering away from the apathetic and histrionic extremes, but with both leads, you may intermittently find yourselves internally asking them to go further, tastefully enhancing the drama.

If you don’t want to pay to get your 2018 horror fix up and running, Before I Wake may catch you off guard, but it may additionally leave you wanting more. Flanagan is a capable filmmaker who’s shown some impressive chops of late, and hopefully will continue to do so with his “The Haunting of Hill House” T.V. series adaptation, but there was more he and his cast could have done to make the material resonate. As per usual, especially in recent years, the Golden Globes kicks off the new year with a fiery blast, while the slate of new releases begins with a whisper.

2.5/5

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