It’s taken a while to see the light of day, but before he helmed Ouija: Origin of Evil, Mike Flanagan wrote and directed supernatural chiller Before I Wake. Lacking the sting of his other work, it’s a frustrating film that ultimately can’t utilise its intriguing premise to its full potential.
Jacob Tremblay (technically appearing here before he became a household name in Room) plays Cody, a troubled child who is adopted by a young married couple (Kate Bosworth and Thomas Jane). Jessie and Mark are mourning the death of their young son Shawn, and from the beginning, Cody seems to be a good fit, comfortably adapting to his new home, and seeming to help Jessie and Mark manage their grief. Of course, there’s a twist: it becomes apparent early on that when Cody dreams, they manifest themselves in real life inside the family home. This begins innocently enough, then one evening, Jessie and Mark tell Cody about Shawn. He appears in Cody’s dreams, and in turn, visits Jessie and Mark that night. Cody wakes up, Shawn disappears, and Jessie and Mark realise that Cody’s gift is providing them with a chance to reconnect with their son.
It’s from this conceit that Before I Wake pulls the bulk of its most compelling material. With Cody acting as a bridge between his new parents and Shawn, Jessie and Mark begin to manipulate him in various ways in the name of the fleeting reunions his dreams provide. The couple’s grappling with the morality and ethics of this, in spite of the more conventionally “horror” elements that follow, provides Before I Wake with its darkest and most convincing reaches.
Unfortunately, the film’s smarter elements are at odds with a few clanging missteps that Flanagan normally sidesteps. A clunky and ill-fitting over-reliance on CGI (not to mention a central “villain” who looks a little like a spectral Groot) hampers the tension at several critical junctures, and the film’s payoff somehow feels both papery and over-explained. Before I Wake is a maddening piece of work: one that sets a genuinely gripping moral quandry against a traditionally horror backdrop, but smokes out its final act with heavy handed metaphors and an unusually cloying sentimentality.