Kindness in Darkness: Doctor Sleep

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Doctor Sleep is the kindest horror movie I’ve seen this decade. It’s also the most artful, complex piece of Western cinema in years, simultaneously honoring Kubrick’s laborious foreboding and King’s original text while consciously saying something different to both. This isn’t a movie where death is a villain. Here, death is a companion, and the kindness with which you treat it says everything about you.

The villains of the piece are The True Knot, a group of immortal pseudo-vampires who feed off ‘smoke’, the psychic energy of humans. They’re a ragtag bunch, led by a predatory and precise Rebecca Ferguson as Rose The Hat. Rose likes being alive. Rose is terrified of death and every victim they take, every time the True Knot feed, is a feral, desperate scramble that’s one part orgy to one part lions at a carcass. This is where the movie shows its literal teeth, especially in the most carefully shot scene where a young boy (Jacob Tremblay) is captured, tortured and ripped apart by them. It’s horrifying and brutal, an unforgivable obscenity of a crime that powers the entire second half of the movie and defines the True Knot’s evil. That evil lies in the fact their goal and plan are one and the same; live long and damn anyone else. Their true motivation is revealed when their oldest member, Grandpa Flick, dies. Rose holds him and as the shaking old man evaporates, reminds him of the kingdoms he ruled and the lives he dominated. A legendary monarch, now dust and long forgotten in his feral RV convoy, prowling the empty back roads of America.

hat reaction, comforting Flick by reminding him of the blood on his hands, says everything about the True Knot. It also gives Danny Torrence (Ewan McGregor) something to push against, the Good Fight he desperately needs. The son of Jack Torrence is still tormented by the Overlook’s ghosts and Roger Dale Floyd does a great job as the terrified kid in the early scenes, slowly learning his powers. Likewise Carl Lumbly standing in for Scatman Cruthers as Tom, the kind old cook who died at the Overlook and Danny’s conscience.

Tom has a lot of work to do. As an adult, Danny is an alcoholic drug addict, watched patiently by the kind old man who died defending him. Finally, he runs, literally from himself and ends up in New Hampshire. The scene that follows, as Danny is befriended by Cliff Curtis’ Billy Freeman, was the first of several moments the movie brought me to tears. There’s this careful honesty to the men’s friendship, the negotiation of bruises neither can acknowledge but both can see. It’s carried still further by Bruce Greenwood’s cameo as Danny’s AA meeting leader and eventual employer. All three men are known for roles which have either been macho or suffered at the hands of macho. Here, all three are careful, kind, helpful. None less masculine for it either.

But it’s Danny’s attitude towards Death which really makes the movie sing. For Rose it’s the map of what to avoid. For Danny it’s the territory he lives on. His job, the titular Doctor Sleep, is as a night porter in the local hospice. He takes it on himself to help those who are about to pass on do so, reminding them not of the damage they wrought but the manner in which they were loved. Rose reminds Grandpa Flick of the mark he’s gouged on the world. Danny reminds his charges of the things they built for the people coming after them. He knows death isn’t the end, but he also knows it’s a destination that everyone must travel to before moving on. As a result, his friendship with Abra Stone (A scene stealing turn by Kyliegh Curran) takes on a very different tone. Rose guards those who maimed the past. Danny uses his past to safeguard an immensely powerfu; young woman who will build the future. In doing so, his journey also honors King, Kubrick, Nicholson, Duvall and Lloyd from the originals. But most of all, it finishes with him back where he needs to be; a scared and deeply brave kid, reunited at last with the mother whose life he saved and who saved him. 

Doctor Sleep is an immensely complex story that never forgets the simple, awful, reassuring truth at it’s core. We’re all going in the same direction. Everything we do before we get there matters. It’s a vastly respectful, kind, deeply sweet and very moving horror movie. Please see it when it hits home release.