A deep current of sadness floods the veins of Before I Wake, a horror film in which the horrors are not, in the supernatural sense, external but metaphysical. There is a ghoulish being here, but for once, the climactic confrontation features a woman squelching the fear from the entire situation by presenting the being with a totem. Something odd happens just then. The being changes and becomes sorrowful. It is important to note that, without the proper context, this whole exchange will be indecipherable to those who haven't seen the movie. Co-writer/director Mike Flanagan's film introduces concepts common in the horror genre, then takes those concepts into unexpected places.
We think we know where this tale is headed upon the screenplay's introduction to its trio of primary characters, but we do not. Mark (Thomas Jane) and Jessie (Kate Bosworth) are still mourning the loss of their son Sean (Antonio Romero) to a freak accident. We never clearly see what happened in that accident, even with the carefully spliced, fragmented flashbacks, but it involved a drowning in a bathtub. Jessie has made certain that the walls of the tub have been fitted for handrails. Perhaps her son's death might have been prevented if he could have latched onto something for support.
Mark has been having trouble coping with his son's loss. He does not attend the support group that keeps Jessie afloat, and though he clearly sympathizes with his wife's own coping strategies, such as fitting the walls of the bathtub with handrails, he just as clearly perishes the thought of dealing with the death at all. The only time he really seems to come to terms with it is when Cody (Jacob Tremblay), the orphaned boy for whom they have agreed to care until making the decision, asks, rather baldly, how Sean died. Jane's performance is cautious enough that the step Mark has taken on the road to recovery is a nuanced one. There are only baby steps here.
It becomes obvious to Mark and Jessie very quickly that something is amiss with their new ward: Every time Cody sleeps, butterflies bathed in light appear and, soon, their late son, disappearing the moment Cody wakes up. Something is off about Sean during these stretches, and the presence of a malevolent spirit, known to Cody only as the "Canker Man" (Topher Bousquet) complicates matters even further. Clues dropped by Cody's social worker (played by Annabeth Gish) and former adoptive father (played by Dash Mihok) are but small comforts to the parents who, in any case, may not want to stop seeing their son, even if he's a projection of the living boy.
The tiniest clues are what litter the screenplay by Flanagan and Jeff Howard. Indeed, by the end, there are no obvious answers beyond the metaphysical nature of the Canker Man. Flanagan's approach to the horror elements of his movie is as subtle as the performances (Bosworth is strong as a grieving mother, and Tremblay's expressive, curious eyes belie his young age): There is no light-and-sound show, with the director gazing unblinkingly at the sights meant to startle and horrify. Some of these ideas, by virtue of being avoided for that sense of quietude, don't quite come together, but Before I Wake does have some radical ideas in its head. The film follows through in its exploration of the most important ones, and for that, it is commendable.
Kate Bosworth (Jessie), Thomas Jane (Mark), Jacob Tremblay (Cody), Annabeth Gish (Natalie), Dash Mihok (Whelan), Antonio Romero (Sean), Topher Bousquet (The Canker Man).
Directed by Mike Flanagan and written by Flanagan and Jeff Howard.
Rated PG-13 (violent content, terror including disturbing images).
Released on January 5, 2018.