What happens when a little boy’s nightmares come to life? With that simple premise, director Mike Flanagan explores themes of grief, loss, acceptance, and abuse. He also uses it to scare the crap out of his audience.
Kate Bosworth and Thomas Jane play Jessie and Mark a couple looking to foster a child as a means of moving past the recent death of their son. They take in Cody, played by Jacob Tremblay. They soon discover that Cody’s dreams manifest in the real world when he sleeps. The dreams start as magical and magnificent spectacles, but they soon turn dark as Cody’s daytime stresses turn into nightmares.
Mike Flanagan is so good. He is a truly phenomenal director. He holds silences and pauses to excruciating effect. He knows when to build tension and when to release it with a well placed bang. There’s a wonderful moment early when Jessie thinks she sees someone in the living room. Flanagan uses the tried and true shot reverse shot to give us Jessie’s perspective. We are craning to see if what we think we’re looking at is really there just like she is. The moment builds until a wonderful breaking point that feels natural and earned. No cheap jump scares and shocks here. He earns his moments.
Another wonderful thing about Flangan’s filmmaking is that he doesn’t over explain what his characters are doing and why. They behave in ways that make sense to us because their lives and motivations are clear to us. We feel what they feel and join them as they act accordingly. This plays out to great effect in the first half of the film. The characters take action and we follow their journey. The second half of the film, not so much. The movie definitely stumbles in the second half. It follows familiar beats and ends with a sequence that over explains everything that came before. it works, but it still feels like the movie is condescending to us. It spoils what was a top tier film.
The scary elements are deeply unsettling and genuinely scary. Cody’s biggest nightmare is something he calls the Canker Man. The creature design is fantastic. It overstays its welcome a little by the end, but its early appearances are truly memorable. The movie does a great job of flipping innocent imagery and gentle dreams into nightmares. Cody dreams about butterflies one night. Later those butterflies turn to black moths that are really horrifying.
The film is about so much more than just the scary elements though. It is a story of grief and loss. Jessie and Mark have lost so much, and they carry so much resentment and pain. The movie is about moving on and accepting that loss and learning to move on. There is so much more happening here, and the actors bring out those themes wonderfully with understated performances that rely more on the expressions and non verbal acting than on talking through every detail of what’s going on. This one works as a family drama just as much as it works as a horror movie.
I love so much of this movie. I wish I loved it all the way through, but that second half really struggled. The first half is so character driven, and the second half is so plot driven it just feels like a different lesser movie. That ending sequence just feels like it’s talking down to the audience. It seriously just over-explains too much. I can’t recommend it unequivocally, but I can recommend it. It’s still very good and very effective. It’s my cup of tea. B+