Why 'Doctor Sleep' Can't Escape the Ghost of Stanley Kubrick's 'The Shining'
Whether he's pedaling hard through the Overlook Hotel on his tricycle as a frightened young boy or drinking away his troubles in dingy bars as a troubled adult man, Danny Torrance can't escape himself. Played by mop-haired child actor Danny Lloyd in Stanley Kubrick's The Shining, the terrifying 1980 adaptation of Stephen King's 1977 horror novel, Danny is fresh-faced and curious, a model of precocious boyhood in his rocketship sweater. In the film's new sequel, which was adapted by filmmaker Mike Flanagan from King's 2013 novel, Danny's got a scraggly beard, tired eyes, and his father's taste for booze. But he also has a gift, a psychic connection to another realm. When he takes a job as an orderly at a hospice in New Hampshire, the patients call him Doctor Sleep because he helps bridge the gap between life and death.
As a movie, Flanagan's Doctor Sleep also attempts to bridge a series of fractured divides. Though it was largely dismissed by critics on its release, Kubrick's film is now widely considered a classic, an unwieldy text that spawned enough theoretical musings to inspire 2012's fascinating Room 237, an entire documentary about the various interpretations; meanwhile, King has continued to voice his displeasure with the original movie, which he argues misses the point of his novel. At great pains and at great length, clocking in at a runtime that exceeds Kubrick's long nightmare, Flanagan's movie wants to heal old wounds, honoring King's narrative while paying tribute to Kubrick's imagery. It's the cinematic equivalent of watching a skilled medic apply a tourniquet to an elevator that's gushing blood.
As it leaps across time periods and regions, Doctor Sleep displays a restlessness right from the start. First, there's a brief sunny prologue in Florida, where Danny and his mother Wendy (Alex Essoe, taking over the role from Shelley Duvall) have relocated following the tragedy in Colorado. Then, the film shifts to the East Coast, where middle-aged Danny, now called Dan and played by a beleaguered Ewan McGregor, dulls his telekinetic powers with alcohol. After a particularly unsettling morning, which finds him stealing the wallet of a woman he picked up at a bar, Dan tumbles off a bus in New Hampshire, where he lands a steady gig in the care-taking business thanks to a well-meaning local (Cliff Curtis) and tidies up his life with the assistance of an Alcoholics Anonymous group lead by a kind-hearted doctor (Bruce Greenwood, who had a larger role in Flanagan's unsettling 2017 King adaptation Gerald's Game). He's on the path to recovery, approaching his journey one day at a time.
At the same time, there's still wickedness in the world, most pressingly in the form of Rose the Hat, a mystic played with a sense of hippie-dippy menace by Rebecca Ferguson. Rose leads a roving cavalcade of RV-dwelling, soul-sucking men and women who feed on "the steam" of children who have the ability to "shine," the same gift Dan displayed as a kid. (As portrayed in the film, the consumption of "steam" resembles a form of creepy vaping.) The group calls themselves the True Knot, a name that sounds like the title of an album by a forgotten soft rock band from Laurel Canyon, and they eventually become obsessed with tracking down Abra Stone (Kyliegh Curran), a young girl with a staggering amount of supernatural potential. Who does Abra reach out to for guidance, setting up an inevitable clash between good and evil? Old Doctor Sleepy himself.
The narrative work required to set up all these moving parts, toggling between different story threads while building tension and establishing new characters with quick details, comes easily enough to Flanagan, who recently oversaw Netflix's engrossing family saga The Haunting of Hill House. An editor by trade before he became a director, Flanagan understands how to marshal information, consolidate events, and track character growth over time. If King's main argument against Kubrick's movie was that it didn't understand how to portray a psychological arc, he'll likely be pleased by Flanagan's often painstaking, exacting approach to the material. (In fact, King has been singing the movie's praises on Twitter: "The clarity of the storytelling is what makes it special.")
For viewers looking for the claustrophobia of Kubrick's movie, the ever-widening scope of Doctor Sleep will be surprising. As a novel, Doctor Sleep is the work of a literary iconoclast, a writer who often chases bizarre tangents, goes long on seemingly insignificant bits of ephemera, and takes big swings in pursuit of his larger vision. Many of the book's strongest chapters circle the ideas of guilt, service, and forgiveness, particularly in the tender hospice passages and the vivid sections devoted to the minutia of AA meetings. As is often the case with late-period King novels, the storytelling mechanics of the primary conflict are well oiled, but the true engine of the book lies elsewhere. The wisdom accumulates in the evocative margins and the folksy asides.
Unfortunately, Flanagan's mostly faithful adaptation can't quite translate what makes the book unique. Though there are stretches that excite, like a sequence that finds Ferguson soaring through the sky with the assistance of surreal digital effects, or a tense shoot-out in the woods, the movie is oddly tentative, a quality that becomes especially clear toward the end when Flanagan starts playing a cover version of Kubrick's greatest hits. (Steven Spielberg at least had more fun doing his remix of The Shining in Ready Player One.) Like with Denis Villeneuve's Blade Runner 2049, another sequel that attempts to build on the iconography of a now-beloved cult film, the weight of the past becomes too heavy as the movie progresses. The film starts to buckle.
As a director, Flanagan is less like Kubrick, a master of creating an unnerving distance from his characters, and more like a different acclaimed King adapter: Frank Darabont, who helmed The Shawshank Redemption, The Green Mile, and The Myst. At heart, Flanagan is a sentimentalist. But in trying to draw emotional and visual resonance from Kubrick's work, inhaling the steam of one of the horror genre's most obsessed-over artifacts, the movie ends up feeling curiously empty. The ending should be a total gut-punch, a flame-kissed reckoning with the past. Instead, it has all the potency of a clammy handshake between feuding parties.