Mike Flanagan’s Before I Wake is a film that relates to horror films such as Coraline and Insidious. However, the mysterious ‘other world’ coincides with reality in Before I Wake rather than existing parallel. The dreams of Cody (Jacob Tremblay), a young boy, come to life for the duration of time that he is asleep. Unfortunately, his nightmares also come to life. To prevent himself from dreaming in fear of a nightmare, Cody drinks caffeinated drinks at nighttime to minimize his sleep.
When he was very young, Cody’s mother died. Following her death, Cody was placed in adoption centers, moved from family to family. Couples adopt the charming Cody only to have to give him up due to the danger of his dark nightmares. Cody attributes his mother’s death to recurring nightmares of an evil man who hurts whoever Cody is within near proximity of. The man’s appearance is like that of a cocoon; he absorbs people into himself as he grabs hold of them.
A young couple, Jessie (Kate Bosworth) and Mark (Thomas Jane), recently lost their own child, Sean, and decide to adopt Cody. Sean died due to drowning in a bathtub and it is suggested that this was because of momentary neglect by Jessie. Just as Cody continues to grieve for his mother, Jessie struggles to come to terms with Sean’s death. Jessie and Mark are quick to realize that Cody’s dreams become reality when they find Cody’s energy drinks and see Sean as Cody as dreamed him to be based on a photo. Jessie decides to show Cody a video of Sean so that Cody can dream of Sean with greater accuracy, but Mark attempts to persuade Jessie to stop manipulating Cody and that Cody’s imagination of Sean is not assisting in the grieving process.
As Cody’s nightmares continue to come to life, people go missing, consumed by the evil man. Jessie decides to track down past couples that adopted Cody, attempting to learn more about and stop the monster in Cody’s dreams. Although everything is notably attempted to be explained by the film’s conclusion, there are a few cryptic lines of dialogue by Jessie that are left absolutely unrequited.
Before I Wake shares traits with the horror, fantasy, drama, and mystery genres. In this regard, it is somewhat like Insidious, although I would consider Before I Wake to be an effort by Flanagan to distance himself from the horror genre. His most recent film Hush is a horror film only by the scale of its violence and its quality as a home invasion-it is more appropriately designated as a thriller. Rather than proceeding from scare to scare, Before I Wake contains a detailed plot and a mystery of sorts. Why does Cody see the same evil man in his dreams? How can Jessie and Mark prevent Cody from having nightmares?
An interesting aspect of Before I Wake is the psychology of Cody’s dreams. In a flashback to when he was a baby, he dreams of shapes and colors rather than objects and persons. And when a classmate informs Cody that his drawing of a butterfly is inaccurate due to the butterfly’s lack of antennae, butterflies in Cody’s later dreams have antennae. Cody’s dreams reflect how his child mind interprets events in his life. It is these subtle, other, non-horrific details that distance Before I Wake from the horror genre.
The dream sequences in Before I Wake are the most impressive aspects of the film. Flanagan partnered again with cinematographer Michael Fimognari (Oculus) to great effect- the interchange between light and darkness within Cody’s dreams is theatrical. Along with the themes of dreams and grieving, Before I Wake could have very well been performed as a play.
Although horror may be Flanagan’s forte, perhaps he ought to have included more fantastic elements in Before I Wake. Then audiences may be less inclined to over-speculate or note plot holes, but rather, to wonder. And maybe, some things should be left as mysteries rather than attempted to be explained or obscured. Before I Wake could have been like a fairy tale. When watching a fantasy, one often resists the tendency to question circumstances as one does when viewing horror films.