All atmosphere and no cheap tricks make this an excellent movie.
What can you say about Stephen King’s The Shining? It is arguably his most famous work, and is highly regarded among readers. However, many people associate The Shining with the 1980 Stanley Kubrick cinematic adaptation of King’s novel, which heavily deviated from the book (much to the displeasure of King, himself). Despite straying from the source, the film stuck an unusual chord with audiences, and is now heralded as a filmmaking masterpiece by all except King, of course. Now, the audience returns to the Overlook Hotel with a follow-up; an adaptation of King’s book, Doctor Sleep.
Danny Torrance struggles with the trauma from his experience at the Overlook Hotel. To suppress his feelings, he has resorted to alcoholism following in the same unfortunate footsteps as his father. He moves to a small town to start a new life, attending AA meetings, making friends, and working a job at a hospice center. While living there, he also befriends a young girl named Abra who, like him, has a psychic power known as “shining.” When they come across a cult called the True Knot that feast on children’s psychic powers, Danny must do everything in his power to protect Abra from them.
Obviously audiences are going to be cautious when approaching this film, because it has at least two legacies to abide by, both the King book of the same name and the Kubrick film. It is a pressing position for any filmmaker to be in, and in the wrong hands, it could have been a significant ball drop. Writer/director Mike Flanagan, however, has proven his gift of brilliant filmmaking before with his films Oculus, Ouija: Origin of Evil, and Gerald’s Game, the latter of which was also a Stephen King adaptation. With Doctor Sleep, Mike Flanagan proves that he truly does own that gift, because he has made arguably one of the best films of 2019.
What makes Doctor Sleep such a great film? For one thing, it utilizes nostalgia perfectly. Similar to how the True Knot feasts on kids psychic abilities in this film, the film had many opportunities to feed on the audiences nostalgia for the Kubrick film and leave them with nothing. However, the film took a good look at The Shining‘s legacy, and compliments it. Yes, it contains callbacks to the original film, mostly seen in its beginning and ending, but the story here is so well executed, that the nostalgia feels earned in the end. This is not like the Terminator sequels, where characters utter phrases heard in the first two films, even when those phrases do not make logical sense. The film feature locations, as well as characters, so well recreated from the Kubrick film, that it feels like no time has passed between films. The film’s first sequence copies Kubrick’s style so well, that you would believe the filmmakers lifted that shot straight from the 1980 film.
Another area where this film excels is in its cast, because there is not one weak actor in it. Ewan McGregor beautifully channels Danny Lloyd’s version of Danny Torrance, all while making it is his own performance (and also interestingly mirrors the arc of his character’s in the Trainspotting films). Rebecca Ferguson plays Rose the Hat, leader of the True Knot, as deliciously evil, and it pays off beautifully, finally giving 2019 at least one interesting cinematic villain. However, the performance that completely steals the show is Kyliegh Curran as Abra. Her performance is natural and watchable, and is one of the best child performances in any film that has been released this year. You know a performance is that good when you are begging for them not to leave the screen. The actors who recreated roles from from the 1980 film capture their characters perfectly especially Carl Lumbly recreating Scatman Crother’s role as Dick Holloran.
In the same way he approached his previous films, Mike Flanagan opted not to use jump scares in Doctor Sleep. While there is nothing inherently wrong with jump scares, they often feel like cheap tricks to manipulate the audience. By not using jump cuts, Flanagan incorporates atmosphere into his scenes, and makes them more unsettling than scary, which feels more appropriate for a story of this kind. He shows his audience that he understands what made The Shining work so well: the atmosphere. Flanagan also edited the film, and all of the scenes play out perfectly, with no shot feeling too long or too short.
With all of the connections it makes to the Kubrick film, Doctor Sleep also manages to be respectful of King’s approach to characters. To understand this is to understand part of King’s criticisms of the Kubrick film, in that Jack Torrance’s struggles were not properly conveyed in the film’s execution. It makes sense because in that film, Jack Nicholson, while giving a solid performance as Jack Torrance, barely showed much of a transition into madness. In Doctor Sleep, as a grown up Danny Torrance, Ewan McGregor plays the role with more dimensions and complexity, as we see trauma affect his day-to-day life. How faithful the film itself is to the novel won’t be entirely clear for those who have not read it, but the film is excellent regardless.
Atmospheric and masterfully crafted, Doctor Sleep is the perfect marriage of Stanley Kubrick and Stephen King. It manages to respect both King’s style and Kubrick’s film while still being an entertaining film in its own right, something that few sequels are able to accomplish. It is well-cast, well-shot, well-directed, and has such good pacing, that the two hour-plus runtime almost flies by. Some films are like people: some shine and some don’t. This film definitely shines!