– By Sam Hendrian –
“We’re all dying. The world’s just a hospice with fresh air.”
This philosophical observation made by Dan Torrance (Ewan McGregor) midway through the cinematic Stephen King adaptation Doctor Sleep is rather bleak, but it is also undeniably true. Like the memento mori that monks sometimes keep on their desks, horror films are ultimately necessary reminders that death shall come to all of us at some point or another.
For a while, I did not quite understand Stephen King. Why would a seemingly sane-minded man consistently write about such perverse things and then pass it off as entertainment? I can respect a good ghost story, but the subject matter in King’s stories often makes Edgar Allan Poe look like A.A. Milne. However, after seeing the unexpectedly deep Doctor Sleep, I suddenly understood why Stephen King writes about so many awful things, and why people eat it up. It is a paradoxical coping mechanism for the awfulness of the world, a prescription pill to fight the enticing Siren’s song of ignorance. Horrible things really do happen to good people, and even if we are lucky enough not to be one of those people, we need to be constantly aware that life is never all flowers and chocolates.
Beyond being a necessary reminder that Earth is often a terribly evil place, Doctor Sleep is also a fairly well-crafted story with complex human characters. A sequel to Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 adaptation of Stephen King’s 1977 novel The Shining, it follows Dan Torrance, a man gifted/cursed with a magical psychic awareness he calls “the shining,” as he continues to struggle with haunting memories of his dad turning into a homicidal maniac at Colorado’s Overlook Hotel when he was a little boy. Rather than take time to explain the complex, magic-oriented plots of both films, I will leave that to your own individual viewing experiences and explore some of the sequel’s touching themes.
Detached from the horror elements in the movie, Doctor Sleep is simply a story about a good-hearted man striving to overcome addiction and temptation. The scars of his childhood have led Dan Torrance into the chains of alcoholism, but with steadfast perseverance and the saintly help of a kind man named Billy, he turns sober and spends eight years working at a hospice care center, ultimately going on a self-sacrificing mission to save a young girl from unspeakable evils.
In one of the film’s best scenes, Dan comes face-to-face with the ghost of his dad, Jack Torrance, who mysteriously went crazy and tried to kill him and his mother several years ago (“Here’s JOHNNY!”). Jack tempts his son with a small glass of whisky, trying to convince him that it will heal his emotional pain. But Dan resists, quoting a haunting old proverb:
The man takes a drink. The drink takes a drink. Then the drink takes a man.
Insert whatever you would like instead of “drink”—food, money, power, cell phones, social media—and this statement has a deeply personal effect. We all have vices that threaten to trap us in Sin’s ongoing slave trade, but if we seek the courage and grace to overcome them, we can manage to die as free women and men.
Speaking of dying, the film is remarkably hopeful in its outlook on death and the afterlife, especially for a Stephen King story. While working in a hospice, Dan has a short, quietly beautiful conversation with a man named Charlie who is about to die. Charlie says:
“I’m not scared of hell. I lived a decent life … I’m scared there’s nothing.”
Charlie’s concern echoes a universal human fear that has taunted even the most faithful of saints throughout history. Is the afterlife just an illusion we have created to give us comfort? Are we blind travelers on a road to nothingness?
While he’s not a religious man, Dan comforts Charlie with words that ring with mystical truth:
“We don’t end, Charlie. I don’t know much else for certain, but I… that much I know.”
And so the film wholeheartedly embraces the immortality of the soul, a truth that is especially comforting during the film’s horrific scenes of torture and death. The main villain, Rose the Hat, is the epitome of demonic evil, and it is fascinating to watch how she tempts one character with convincing “You think you’re better than me?” rhetoric. “You’re just like me,” she hisses, hinting at the evil that purrs with potentiality at the bottom of every heart. Fortunately, Rose fails in her temptation, and her words are soon drowned out by Dan’s assertion that while there is evil in every one of us, there is also abundant good that we must let shine through.
“Everybody shines a little,” Dan tells someone at one point in the film, citing people who bring flowers to their spouses when they need them most or perform any random act of kindness. Then, in the film’s final moments, he says, “Keep shining.” Doctor Sleep is not a film for everyone, but for those who do see it, there are subtle rewards waiting. It skillfully conveys a relevant reminder that there is a good side, there is a bad side, and the two will be at war until the end of time. But as long as we daily step on the serpents who bite at our heels with persistent temptation, as long as we continually choose love over selfishness, then the Good shall shine brightest in the end.
Sam Hendrian is a student at John Paul the Great Catholic University (Class of 2019) pursuing an emphasis in Directing.
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