Ewan McGregor … Danny Torrance
Doctor Sleep Review:
Warner Bros. has gone out of its way, across trailers and TV spots and bus ads, to remind you that Mike Flanagan’s Doctor Sleep is the cinematic follow-up to Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining. (Kubrick’s estate, somewhat tellingly, has been sharing Doctor Sleep material across its social handles as well.) This is fascinating for a number of reasons, chiefly that Stephen King, who wrote the novels that both The Shining and Doctor Sleep are based on, didn’t care for Kubrick’s adaptation, objecting to its emotional remoteness and the frenzied pitch of Jack Nicholson’s performance. That the sequel would be made, all these years after the first film, based on a novel that has very little to do with The Shining, at a time when King has never had as much cultural cache, is absolutely astounding. The fact that it adheres so closely to Kubrick’s aesthetic (or at least Warner Bros. wants you to believe that it does) is an even bolder choice. And yet, defying every odd, Doctor Sleep manages to both be a successful follow-up to Kubrick’s film and very much its own movie, with a distinct tone, pace, and sensibility. And those internal conversations, between an original and its sequel, an adaptation and a faithful recreation, make the movie even better and more interesting. Seriously, it’s great.
Danny Torrance, played in The Shining by Danny Lloyd and in flashback here by Roger Dale Floyd, has grown up. Now he’s Ewan McGregor, drinking heavily as a way to block out the horrors that have followed him home from the Overlook Hotel. McGregor is an odd choice for the role but ends up being a perfect adult Danny; his face is all anguished self-doubt, contorting often into a kind of three-dimensionalized representation of worry. Eventually, Danny gets clean and starts to work in a hospice; the movie’s title is the nickname the residents have dubbed him, since, with the aid of his otherworldly abilities, he is able to soothe the elderly patients when
Of course, his relatively simple life of recovery and community is disrupted by a band of roving, seemingly immortal creatures that call themselves The True Knot, led by Rose the Hat (Rebecca Ferguson). The True Knot hunt down folks that, like Danny, “shine,” and steal their essence, which is visualized as a vaporous fog. Danny ultimately connects with a young girl named Abra (newcomer Kyliegh Curran) and attempts to save her from being the cultish group’s latest victim.
Going into Doctor Sleep, it’s chiefly important to remember that this is not The Shining, despite what all of the marketing might suggest. The Shining is a masterpiece, a complicated, multilayered look at alcoholism and insanity, and one of the most tightly controlled, claustrophobic horror movies ever. Doctor Sleep, on the other hand, is oftentimes bright and expansive. Instead of being emotionally reserved, it’s big-hearted and open. There are multiple locations and large swaths of the story that resemble an old-fashioned road movie (except, you know, horrifying). And in adapting the book, Flanagan (serving as both writer and director) has made some smart decisions, bringing it closer in line with Kubrick’s original and making it much more palpable for audiences (sorry, fans of The True Knot’s single, gnarled tooth). In a way, the changes Kubrick made to King’s text have made it much easier to mount a cinematic follow-up. For one, Kubrick froze the ghoulish, ghost-filled Overlook Hotel; King burned it to the ground. It’s hard to think of a single pop culture property that has been more forensically picked apart than Kubrick’s 1980 classic, especially when you factor in things like Rodney Ascher’s terrific documentary Room 237 and the sequence in Ready Player One where Steven Spielberg faithfully recreates his late mentor’s set pieces.
Flanagan seems to understand that, and wisely chooses to zig where others would have zagged. He definitely swings big (the movie is even longer than the original), including with some things that are way too spoiler-y to discuss here, but he clearly knows the kind of world he’s entering into. He’s respectful of it and yet is comfortable with advancing it. Also, since he knows the obsessive nature of The Shining faithfuls, he’s littered the movie with Easter eggs and callbacks, ranging from the various numbers you’ll see throughout the film to set decoration and the wardrobes of certain characters. Also, if you were worried that, through some technological witchcraft, the original actors from The Shining would be returned to the year of our lord 1980, fear not. Deep fakes are some of the few creatures that refuse to take residence in the Overlook.
If you love The Shining, chances are you’ll love Doctor Sleep. If you loved the 2013 novel, you’ll probably love Doctor Sleep too (even with all of the changes, some major, some minor). And if you just want to go to the mall and get spooked with your friends on a Friday night, Doctor Sleep is good for that too. In some ways it’s a miraculous achievement, less flashy and subversive than Kubrick’s original, but still deeply unsettling and much, much warmer. It might not bowl you over like when you saw The Shining for the first time, but in a few more viewings, you might love it just as much. Come play with us.