A sense of trepidation envelopes Netflix users when scrolling through their original content looking for something to watch. Whereas Netflix has a strong grasp on television and has made binge-watching an everyday colloquialism, original films are more unpredictable. So when the streaming service makes the decision to dust off Mike Flanagan's long-delayed third film, Before I Wake, it is either to appease the director behind Netflix Originals Hush and Gerald's Game, or it's simply just another acquisition to bolster its VOD content.
Before I Wake began streaming the same day Insidious: The Last Key made its theatrical bow. The good news is that its arrival offers an alternative to going to the theater for jump scares or the latest January Liam Neeson movie. Before I Wake is by no means perfect – and you can tell Flanagan was still honing his skills at this point in his career – yet it is an adequate exploration of a trauma parents fear most: losing a child.
Jessie and Mark Hobson (Kate Bosworth and Thomas Jane) are a grief-stricken couple. Years ago they lost their eight-year-old son Sean in a bathtub drowning. Jessie attends group therapy to help cope. Mark, instead, grows his hair long and wallows alone. Enter Cody (Jacob Tremblay), an orphan with a troubled past. About the same age as Sean when he died, the Hobsons adopt Cody in hopes that they can make their quiet suburban residence a family home once again. It's one thing to have a child in hopes of saving a marriage. Fostering a “surrogate Sean” should have been a warning sign.
Cody has a gift. When he sleeps, his dreams manifest as tangible objects. The objects are harmless to start. Colorful butterflies in the living room. Cute turns miraculous when Sean appears the night after Cody sees a photo of him. Jessie and Mark are both bewildered and delighted. The couple don't seem to care that Sean is stoic save a grinning face – the same expression from the photo. Wanting more reunions with their deceased son, they show Cody an old home movie of a past Christmas. Abusing such a gift comes with its own set of consequences. Cody, like all little kids, has nightmares.
The nightmares are where the truly horrifying moments begin. There is a bogeyman that is always with Cody known as the Canker Man. The shadowy figure is hungry and will try to consume anyone that gets in its way. Though the mysterious figure is a generic apparition, it kicks the narrative in gear as Jessie looks through medical documents and speaks to those who have observed Cody's nightmares. What the bogeyman represents is tragic in and of itself and is a great metaphor for the monsters that inflict pain and suffering.
The Canker Man makes Before I Wake a fine horror movie. The monster provides a structure which allows Flanagan to explore sorrow in an arresting way. Still, Bosworth and Jane as grieving parents are rather shallow, and Tremblay only shows a flash of the potential he showed in Room. Performances aside, Mike Flanagan throws out some good ideas as he mixes magic and mystery in what is actually a supernatural character drama, making Before I Wake a bedtime story worth staying up for.