A select few directors really know how to successfully transfer Stephen King's novels to the screen. Frank Darabont -- who adapted The Shawshank Redemption, The Green Mile, and The Mist – is one. Mike Flanagan is another. His screen version of Gerald's Game (available on Netflix) is taut and disturbing, and Doctor Sleep has a great, eerie atmosphere that nicely accentuates the story's themes. A couple minor issues keep it from being a masterpiece, but it's still a solid King-based film.
The movie and the novel are sequels to The Shining. Ewan McGregor plays the now-grown Dan Torrance. He's developed an alcohol problem as a result of the trauma he sustained at the Overlook Hotel as a child. After starting the process of getting sober, Dan gets pulled into something troubing. A cult called The True Knot is seeking out children and teenagers with extrasensory powers, then absorbing their “shine.” This occurs under the guidance of the group's leader, the icy Rose the Hat (Rebecca Ferguson).
Of course, Dan has a shine, too. He's able to psychically connect with Abra Stone (Kyliegh Curran), one of their intended targets. Together, the two work to track The True Knot and prevent them from harming any more kids. The trail, perhaps obviously, eventually leads right back to the Overlook.
Doctor Sleep deals with the exploitation of children. Rose the Hat and her followers think nothing of stealing the powers of specially-gifted children and then discarding their corpses. Material of this nature can be extremely upsetting. Flanagan takes it just far enough to be creepy, never tipping over into the zone of offensiveness. Instead of showing anything particularly graphic, he relies on tone, giving the movie an ominous feel that helps us understand what's at stake without the need for exploitation.
Rebecca Ferguson is the standout here, delivering a performance that is at once understated and intensely powerful. The actress knows that playing a villain doesn't require being over-the-top. Sometimes subtle is scarier. Scenes in which Rose sucks out a child's shine, virtually getting high from the act, are enough to induce shivers. Ferguson has created one of the most indelible antagonists of the year.
On a second level, Doctor Sleep addresses trauma. Dan went through hell as a kid, and now he's in a position to help other kids. That means staying sober, as well as coming face-to-face with the terrors of his past. The movie avoids approaching that in a cliched manner. Flanagan carefully builds the relationship between Dan and Abra, and depicts how Dan's initial reticence to get pulled in gives way to a sense of responsibility. One of the best things about the film is that it's very story-oriented, as opposed to just focusing on the scary stuff.
Doctor Sleep faces an unusual issue, one that prevents it from hitting the heights it might otherwise have. The film needs to serve two masters. On one hand, it has to remain true to King's book. On the other, Stanley Kubrick's adaptation of The Shining is a horror classic, so it has to remain true to that, too. King famously hated Kubrick's film, a fact that complicates matters.
The final section is set at the Overlook and contains many visual references to Kubrick's work, including a couple of clips being inserted as Dan's flashbacks. All that is cool in a detached, cinephile kind of way, but I couldn't stop wondering what Doctor Sleep would have been like had Flanagan been able to visualize these things for himself, rather than having to stick to Kubrick's vision.
That, coupled with an intermittently sluggish 151-minute running time, hamstring the picture a little bit. King has a singular voice, though, and any time a movie is able to capture that to a reasonable degree, it's worth celebrating. Doctor Sleep gets more right than wrong, making it a King adaptation worth seeing.
out of four
Doctor Sleep is rated R for disturbing and violent content, some bloody images, language, nudity and drug use. The running time is 2 hours and 31 minutes.