Before I Go to Sleep does little to redefine the psychological thriller genre but still offers an intriguing central mystery that should keep viewers guessing.
In Before I Go to Sleep, Nicole Kidman plays Christine Lucas – a forty-year-old house wife suffering from a mixed form of post-traumatic amnesia – which prevents her from retaining new memories after she falls asleep each night. As a result, Christine awakens every morning confused and fearful – unable to recognize her own husband, Ben (Colin Firth), sleeping in the same bed. In her mind, Christine is still an unmarried twenty-something – despite having been married for nearly fourteen full years.
Throughout her disability, Ben has remained faithful to Christine, routinely explaining significant details and events from the last half-decade while attempting to provide her with daily activities (as well as purpose) – even if Christine’s actions and experiences will be wiped from her own memory each subsequent night. Yet, when renowned neuroscientist Dr. Nasch (Mark Strong) encourages Christine to join an experimental treatment program, without Ben’s consent, she becomes paranoid that friends, family, and doctors are lying about the past – and might not have her best interest in mind.
Based on the novel of the same name by freshman author S. J. Watson, the big screen adaptation of Before I Go to Sleep was written and directed by Rowan Joffé – best known for scripting Anton Corbijn’s The American (starring George Clooney). Nevertheless, Joffé is no stranger to working behind the camera – previously helming the 2011 big screen feature Brighton Rock along with a pair of made-for-TV films (Secret Life and The Shooting of Thomas Hurndall). As a result, Before I Go to Sleep does little to redefine the psychological thriller genre but still offers an intriguing central mystery that should keep viewers guessing. At times, the larger plot stumbles and some moviegoers will predict the twists but Joffé also makes smart use of genre tropes to play-off expectations and prevent the film from retreading too many familiar story beats.
From the outset, Joffé locks the film’s perspective with Christine – and the audience rarely knows more than the main character. The limited POV could have been a hollow gimmick but, in Before I Go to Sleep, the choice pulls double-duty: driving the plot forward (as Christine attempts to unravel the mysteries of her life) and, more importantly, places moviegoers firmly inside the character’s fractured mind. Restricted from the larger context that has been lost to Christine’s damaged memory, viewers take-on a similar mindset – forced to reevaluate pre-conceived notions, prejudices, and assumptions as new information is added into the mix. By the end, Before I Go to Sleep isn’t a particularly deep exploration of its characters but it does deliver an attention-grabbing ride – where viewers can share in the main character’s confusion, heartbreak, hope, and frustration.
Kidman gives a decent performance in the main role; though, despite the mind-bending material, Before I Go to Sleep doesn’t require much from its lead. The actress is convincing but, given that Christine resets every single day, there’s limited evolution to her character – restraining Kidman from digging very deep into the part. First and foremost, Christine is a device that moves the plot (and any revelations) onward – and developing the amnesiac beyond her function in unraveling the mystery is a secondary priority. Still, this isn’t to say that Christine is entirely static or that Kidman isn’t afforded challenging scenes. In fact, Before I Go to Sleep covers some pretty disturbing material and even if Christine, herself, remains unaware of any growth – the actress injects subtle refinements to her character day after day.
The supporting cast is effective but underutilized – often required to do slightly more heavy lifting than Kidman. Since Joffé casts every side player with realistic fallibility, Firth and Strong, along with other support characters, are tasked with a very fine line – as Christine’s fear and doubt turn even the most kind-hearted gestures into veiled manipulations of a potential tormentor. Unsurprisingly, Firth is especially sharp as Ben – portraying both the patience and mind-numbing frustration of a caretaker who is committed to a relationship with someone who cannot even remember his name.
That said, while Joffé presents an interesting glimpse at how context and memory shape our understanding of the people around us, keen moviegoers will find plenty to nitpick in Before I Go to Sleep. The director tries to cram too much of Watson’s novel into the film’s brief 92 minute runtime – leaving a clumsy trail of plot holes and underdeveloped storylines in the wake. Worst of all, in his effort to make everyone a potential deceiver, several arcs and supporting cast members are outright dropped – essentially whenever Joffé can no longer exploit their ambiguity. Like Christine (as a character), the larger film’s principle goal is to keep the twists and turns rolling in rapid succession rather than develop and earn emotional payoff. To that end, Before I Go to Sleep is a story about investigating an external truth (what happened to Christine) instead of examining internal truth (what kind of person she was and/or is becoming). Without a satisfying dramatic core, whether or not the film is a success will depend heavily on how individual moviegoers feel about its final act (and twists).
In the end, moviegoers who are looking for a serviceable psychological thriller will likely find Joffé’s film to be worthy of their time. Moment-to-moment, solid performances and the film’s tight focus will keep viewers engaged but, unlike similar movies within the genre, there isn’t much to Before I Go to Sleep beyond unpacking its mysteries. Joffé attempts to touch-on larger themes (of self-determination and the power of intuition) but his film moves too fast to actually say anything particularly profound. The filmmaker was clearly striking for a deeper character story but whittled his final project down to a surface-level “whodunnit?” Once the primary mystery is answered, the movie leaves little to ponder and even less reason for repeat viewing. Moviegoers will probably enjoy their time with Before I Go to Sleep but it won’t be long before the film vanishes from memory.
Before I Go to Sleep runs 92 minutes and is Rated R for some brutal violence and language. Now playing in theaters.
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