“Before I Wake” (2016): Psychological Drama Explores Loss and Grief as Nightmares Come to Life

Viewers seeking outright horror in cowriter/director Mike Flanagan’s third feature film Before I Wake will be disappointed but those who go in realizing that the filmmaker was aiming for something quite different than crowd-pleasing scare fare should find much to appreciate. Shot between Oculus (2013) and Hush (2016), Before I Wake (originally titled Somnia, which is the title it screened under here in South Korea) is a psychological drama that combines elements of magic realism and the supernatural to tell the story of a newfound family torn apart when the foster-child son’s nightmares come to life.

Horror components are present, to be sure, and people disappear forever, presumably because they died under mysterious circumstances; however, the film aims for suspense and mystery rather than terror. For the most part, it succeeds in those areas, and Mike Flanagan’s tale is bolstered by two very strong performances by Kate Bosworth and Jacob Tremblay.

Jessie (Kate Bosworth) and Mark (Thomas Jane) witness sights they never thought possible when their new foster son Cody moves into their home in Mike Flanagan’s Before I Wake.

Jessie (Kate Bosworth) and Mark (Thomas Jane) are a married couple whose young son died in a household accident. They are accepted to become foster parents to eight-year-old Cody (Jacob Tremblay), who has had some troubling incidents occur with his birth parents and in previous foster homes.

Jessie discovers a box containing substances that Cody uses to keep himself awake. He explains that he doesn’t like to sleep. His dreams affect those around him, creating a fragile, shadowy reality to those people. His nightmares, however, create a much darker and decidedly deadly world.

Jacob Tremblay gives a remarkable performance as Cody, a young boy whose dreams affect those close to him. Photo courtesy of Relativity Media, copyright: © 2014 QNO, LLC.

Mike Flanagan continues to explore alternative realities and psychological otherworlds as he did in his feature-length debut Absentia (2011) and his sophomore feature Oculus (2013). It’s pretty safe to say that viewers may, in general, react to Before I Wake in much the same way that they did with those first two efforts, though some may be disappointed that this new movie places less of an emphasis on horror. As someone who enjoyed Flanagan’s first two films, I was also pleased  with his third effort. His continued growth as a director is on display, and his psychological explorations are among the best in recent genre fare. One one level, things are wrapped up a bit more neatly here than with Absentia and Oculus, but at the same time, some factors are left open to individual interpretation. It’s not an easy balance to achieve but I feel that Flanagan pulls it off well with a script he cowrote with frequent collaborator Jeff Howard.

Kate Bosworth gives a convincing performance as Jessie, a young mother who handles the grief over her dead son differently than her husband. When it seems that she may have a chance to reconnect with the boy, a rift begins to grow between the couple. Horror movie veteran Thomas Jane is solid as Mark, a loving foster parent to Cody and a devoted husband who tries to keep his wife grounded in some semblance of reality when Cody’s dreams disrupt their lives. Jacob Tremblay is outstanding as Cody, a child who tries to live as normal a life as possible while also avoiding sleep so that his nightmares will not affect Jessie and Mark the way they did other caregivers in his past. Tremblay is fully believable in his performance, conveying both vulnerability and attempts at strength in his role as a fractured child who tries to control his double-edged gift the only way he knows how.

Kate Bosworth stars in Relativity Media's "Before I Wake". Photo: Courtesy of Relativity Media Copyright:  © 2014 QNO, LLC
Kate Bosworth stars  as Jessie, a grieving mother who tries to find the key to foster son Cody’s terrifying dream world.  Photo courtesy of Relativity Media, copyright: © 2014 QNO, LLC.

The visual effects on display are of the CGI variety. They work for the most part but at times are a bit distracting. Without going too deeply into spoiler territory, trying to portray elements of Cody’s dreams with practical effects would require a team of butterfly wranglers, so the use of computer graphics is understandable in this case; however, another component of the dreams might have been more effective and certainly creepier with practical effects.

Mike Flanagan’s Before I Wake has enough eeriness and creepiness to send shivers through those less acquainted with horror movies, but more seasoned fright-fare aficionados looking only for chills might be disappointed. Again, for those who may see advertising and trailers pushing the film as a horror tale, keep in mind what I wrote about earlier: this movie does indeed contain supernatural and thriller ingredients  but the main theme is a psychological family drama dealing with loss, told in a suspenseful manner using fantasy elements. It is certainly one of the more unique genre films  on offer recently and it should help find a wider audience for Flanagan.

Before I Wake  3.8 out of 5 stars (3.8 / 5)


Joseph Perry
Joseph Perry fell in love with horror films as a preschooler when he first saw the Gill-Man swim across the TV screen in "The Creature from The Black Lagoon" and Mothra battle Godzilla in "Godzilla Vs. The Thing.” His education in fright fare continued with TV series such as "The Twilight Zone" and "Outer Limits," along with legendary northern California horror host Bob Wilkins’ "Creature Features." His love for silver age and golden age comic books, including horror titles from Gold Key, Dell, and Marvel started around age 5.

He is a contributing writer for the "Phantom of the Movies VideoScope" and “Drive-In Asylum” print magazines and the websites Horror Fuel, Diabolique Magazine, The Scariest Things, B&S About Movies, and When It Was Cool. He is a co-host of the "Uphill Both Ways" pop culture nostalgia podcast and also writes for its website. Joseph occasionally proudly co-writes articles with his son Cohen Perry, who is a film critic in his own right.

A former northern Californian and Oregonian, Joseph has been teaching, writing, and living in South Korea since 2008.