'Before I Wake' Examines The Murky Gap Between Sleep And The Subconscious

'Before I Wake' Examines The Murky Gap Between Sleep And The Subconscious

[SPOILER ALERT: This review explores key plot points and themes of Netflix's "Before I Wake." Read at your own risk!]

Dreams are the mind's way of processing everything from daily tasks to traumatic events. Mundane and rote, many dreams fade from memory long before we wake, while others, mysterious and unexpected, reveal the latent fears and emotions we often choose to ignore. For Cody Morgan (Jacob Tremblay), however, dreams turn to reality in Netflix's "Before I Wake," as his special ability allows his visions to manifest as he sleeps.

While Cody's dreams are both beautiful and haunting, his nightmares invoke dread and horror in ways only an innocent child's mind could. As Cody becomes acquainted with his new foster parents, Mark (Thomas Jane) and Jessie (Kate Bosworth) Hobson, the couple soon realizes both this 8-year-old boy's presence and his power could be exactly what they need to heal after their own son's tragic drowning.

For the Hobson's, Cody's gift first comes to light in the form of colorful, incandescent butterflies. As Cody learns more about the dead son, he too becomes part of these nightly apparitions. Jessie, the grief-stricken mother, ultimately spends her days awaiting Cody's bedtime, as she begins to manipulate the boy's power to reconnect with her child.

However, the experience takes an unexpectedly dark turn when Jessie gives Cody medication to lull the reluctant sleeper. Deep in Cody's subconscious lies "the Canker Man," an unsightly, gangly creature that consumes anyone in its path. That night, the monster takes Mark and knocks Jessie unconscious, for Cody cannot wake from his drug-induced stupor in time to save his new family. 

'Before I Wake' Examines The Murky Gap Between Sleep And The Subconscious

Once child services removes Cody from her care, Jessie launches her own investigation into what might have caused this monster to torment the young boy. But it's Jessie's discovery that highlights both the film's strengths and weaknesses, as it simultaneously lacks closure and provides meaning.

Ultimately, Cody's monster was merely an image conjured from the trauma of his deceased mother's battle with pancreatic cancer (a.k.a. the Canker Man). Because she died when he was three, her words and her appearance, once transformed by the imagination of a young child, mutated into the monster that came to life during Cody's dreams and "ate" those who got in its way.

While we never witness Jessie mourn the loss of her husband, which seems odd and somewhat suspicious, we do see Jessie and Cody bond over these revelations, as he now calls her mom. And, while the story seems to come full circle, there still feels like there's something missing. Much like waking from an actual dream, the writers were able to piece together the various elements of the story into something only somewhat cohesive and sensible. Dreams never make complete sense, leaving those who've endured the experience with a sense of confusion and curiosity. "Before I Wake" does an excellent job of instilling this level of wonder in its viewers. After all, the subconscious can blend thoughts and emotions in ways that reveal how we truly feel inside.

Sleep invites the subconscious to come out and play. In the dream state, we allow ourselves to think and imagine without the confines of waking logic, which the film certainly defies. While there's certainly something missing, like that chill you wake with after an unsettling nightmare, you simply can't put your finger on precisely what's lacking, and that fact alone makes the film more effective than the creators likely ever intended. While "Before I Wake" isn't what most viewers will expect from the "thriller" designation, it will leave you with that uneasy vibe that'll haunt you the whole day through.

Images c/o IMDb