Before I Go to Sleep
And so we bookend October with another twisty domestic thriller that requires a spoiler warning for me to properly review it. Unfortunately, Before I Go to Sleep isn’t half the film that Gone Girl was.
Christine Lucas (Nicole Kidman) is a movie-amnesiac in the style of Memento and 50 First Dates. She remembers things fine over the course of a day, but as soon as she falls asleep she’ll forget everything back to her early twenties. That’s quite a lot, since she’s now forty and was married in her mid-twenties. She wakes up every morning next to a man (Colin Firth) who patiently explains that he’s Ben (Colin Firth), her husband of thirteen years, and points her to a mosaic of their pictures on the bathroom wall. He tells her she was in an accident that led to her current amnesia.
After Ben reminds her of the basics of her day-to-day life and leaves for work, Christine receives a phone call. The man on the other end introduces himself as Dr. Nasch (Mark Strong), a neurologist who’s been working with her recently. He directs her to a camera he gave her to use as a video diary, which she can use to catch up.
We now go back a couple weeks, near the beginning of Christine’s work with Dr. Nasch. Working with him, she learns that her injury was no accident, but the result of a severe beating by an unknown assailant. He shows her the police report and takes her to the place she was found. She starts making a few tenuous connections, remembering people from her past enough to bring them up to Ben, who has to revisit all of their past grief. As fresh as it is for Christine, he’s been through it over and over again before, and it weighs on him to have it brought up again.
But even though Ben has explanations for everything, it’s hard to know how much to trust them. And of course, Strong has made a career of playing not-quite-savory characters with his angular features, and so he comes off as less than completely trustworthy himself. But director Rowan Joffé — who also adapted the script from S.J. Watson’s novel — delivers the turns awkwardly, with a thudding sense of exposition. He also leans far too heavily on cheap tricks like jump scares to prop up the tension that the script and the performances don’t quite provide. And the story itself is shot through with holes; it hangs together tenuously in the moment, but in retrospect it falls to pieces.
That should be enough to give this movie a miss, but there’s a bigger problem, and that requires a spoiler, so stop reading now if you want to preserve the surprise.
The warning is somewhat pro forma, since the Big Twist isn’t much of a surprise to anyone paying close attention: the man calling himself Ben is actually the man Christine had an affair with, and who beat her when she tried to leave. And so the whole film becomes an attempt to use the amnesiac plot mechanic to explore a narrative about a controlling, emotionally abusive relationship.
Now, in principle this might be an interesting idea. Domestic violence, whether physical or emotional, deserves more attention, but it also deserves a more careful and thoughtful treatment than it receives here.
Yes, abusive partners often control every aspect of their victim’s lives, and they express their control in patterns of behavior subtle enough that no one particular incident is necessarily objectionable on its own. To see it requires building a record of a pattern of behavior — exactly the sort of thing Christine cannot do until Dr. Nasch provides her with the camera. And when, in her flight, Christine pulls a fire alarm it echoes the disturbing knowledge, common among women, that they’re more likely to get help by screaming “fire” than “rape”.
But in its attempt to bring up these points, the movie does serious damage to actual women in real abusive relationships. It says, in effect, that before falling into this sort of situation a woman must be profoundly — even incredibly — damaged. She must be lacking some fundamental ability, and even then it takes a long series of implausible circumstances before she can fall so completely under her abuser’s sway.
In fact, all too many women do end up in controlling, abusive relationships, and they’re not all weak or damaged or profoundly unlucky. Women that in any other context we’d see as strong and smart and capable can be victims too, and it’s not their fault any more than a mugging victim is for having a gun shoved into her face.
And in presenting the victim as damaged and inattentive, the film reinforces the idea that these abuse victims are somehow broken or weak, if not actually responsible for their own situations. This stigma is exactly why women refuse to seek help, because we’ve told them that being a victim is somehow a personal failure, and they’re ashamed to admit to being that failure. By reinforcing this myth, Before I Go to Sleep drives that many more women away from seeking help.
Worth It: no.
Bechdel Test: pass.