The following contains spoilers for Before I Go To Sleep. You have been warned.
With Halloween last week came the release of a peculiar little film entitled Before I Go To Sleep. Not only did it call forward influences as varied as 50 First Dates and Memento, but it was the second feature released in the U.S. this year to feature the team-up of Colin Firth and Nicole Kidman (after one-time would-be awards hopeful The Railway Man). If you want a spoiler-free evaluation, check out our review. But if you’re ready to dive in a little deeper, James Tisch and I took some time to discuss amnesiac mystery-thriller Before I Go To Sleep.
Tim: As the saying goes, the beginning is a very good place to start. And with a thriller like this is, the plot takes center stage. So I suppose that’s the place to kick things off for this discussion. When the movie opens we find Christine (Nicole Kidman) waking up stark naked next to the more fully clothed Ben/Mike (Colin Firth). And it seems like right there, the movie wants to be sure that we don’t trust him. It’s weird. Usually a movie woulds set up a character as “good” and then try to flip the script…sort of like Gone Girl did recently. (A couple times, in fact.) But from the beginning Before I Go To Sleep wants to make sure our suspicions are up.
James: It’s sort of strange that the movie operates that way. From the start, we’re made to believe that really no one is trustworthy. There’s not even really a subtle false sense of security to coast on for a little while. Speaking of the naked Christine, doesn’t that feel a little gratuitous? The fact that the movie plays out similar variations of that scene over and over again makes it a detail that’s short on logic and kind of uncomfortable in ways the film doesn’t really address.
Tim: Yeah, I talked about this some in my review. There’s a sense of unease that sits over the film as you watch it. It’s not overtly exploitative (it would have been very easy to show much more of Christine than the movie does when she first wakes up), but there’s this sense throughout the movie that it’s sidestepping the issue, that it’s more concerned with pursuing the details of its plot than addressing why this particular story could be worth telling. Christine is a victim character, and I was actually shocked that the movie didn’t do a full reset at some point, meaning that I’m surprised Ben/Mike didn’t find her camera and erase her “memory” to bring her back under a controlled state.
James: It’s rather strange that Ben/Mike is shown as having such a strong stranglehold over Christine, yet never notices her secret video diary. Even after she shows it to him, there it is. The whole time I was watching Before I Go to Sleep, I kept thinking this was one of those women-in-jeopardy movies that Ashley Judd used to make in the ‘90s.
Tim: Especially because it goes beyond Ben/Mike. Every scene with Dr. Nasch (Mark Strong) also has this not-so-subtle sexual overtone, like he’s breaking every ethical standard imaginable for…what? Then there’s the scene where she thinks he’s her attacker, and he shoots her up with a drug and says something like, “This has happened before.” *Shiver*
James: Dr. Nasch as a character really didn’t make much sense, even though I thought Strong did perhaps all he could with the role. The reveals and shocks that bound Before I Go to Sleep were all kind of like that. I didn’t perhaps see all of them coming at the time, but they were all tropes in a way to further disorient Christine, without really making a lick of sense.
Tim: I’m curious what you thought of Christine as a character. To me, she was too much of an audience stand-in without enough of her own personality. Did you feel the same way, or did you have a different take?
James: I felt similarly. Even with her memory drained from her each day, there’s wasn’t much of an interior life to her. I was much more struck, however, with how the film treated her, which I’m curious to what you thought of. I felt Christine, while the victim and hero of the story, was pitted with a bit of derision. It felt like the film was slut-shaming her for the bulk of the film and then portrayed her as a helpless invalid afterwards.
Tim: I don’t think I quite read the story that way, or at least I don’t think it was consciously doing that, though it’s easy to see where you’re coming from. I think the film just doesn’t do a great job of presenting its material. This was adapted from a novel, and while I haven’t read it, it’s easy enough to imagine a much more complex mental life and past for all the characters. But insofar as Christine’s current predicament is a direct result of her marital infidelity, yes, I understand where you’re coming from. And tied in with that, I don’t think the ending of the movie has nearly the emotional punch it hopes for. Her long-lost husband and teenage son show up, but we don’t really care. They’re cardboard cut outs to us, and I never got to know Christine herself enough as a character to be emotionally invested in her reunion with her son. It goes back to what I said before – I saw her primarily as an audience stand-in, a blank slate that we can project on. But at the point that she has some characterization (i.e. the affair) we disconnect from that identification, and then the character appears lacking.
James: Which I think is a problem with the entire movie. Maybe because the conceit was so ridiculous and told with such a self-serious proficiency, I found myself more irritated by the gender politics because it one of the few things that really stood out for me.
Tim: Yep, that’s the one place I think the movie could have really set itself apart, and it didn’t really try. But if you don’t mind, let’s dig into the plot just a little, because even though it’s a pretty by-the books thriller, there are some kind of funny twists and turns. What stood out to you?
James: Nothing was particularly funny, which may work against the movie in a lot of ways; however, the big reveal that Ben is actually Mike is just warped enough, I suppose, to inspire a few unintended chuckles.
Tim: You know the part I found really weird? Christine’s memory is supposed to go back to 1999. Which means any sort of modern cell phone or other digital device (like the camera she uses) is going to be pretty foreign. I guess it’s smart of the movie to sidestep the issue since it wouldn’t really fit tonally, but I couldn’t stop thinking about the fact that Christine intuitively takes to the new technology without being amazed even once.
James: I didn’t catch on to that, but it’s true. She’s a pro with it from the start, but since the film again plays like a ‘90s Ashley Judd movie, perhaps it works.
Tim: I suppose tying in once again to Christine as a character, I was really curious what prompted her investigation now. Like when I think about what her average day must have been like for the few years prior, I can imagine she spent many days just learning about herself, or at least the faked story about herself, all day. How does she come to call Dr. Nasch in the first place? How does she remember to keep the appointment?
James: There’s tiny glimmers of a past in Before I Got to Sleep when Dr. Nasch remarks from time to time that’s we’ve done this before, but it’s odd that now is when it is finally sticking with Christine (there were video cameras ten years ago.) Yet, we’re just supposed to go with it. I suppose since the plot threads here don’t really add up to anything particularly special, it’s easier to detach from them as opposed to, say, Gone Girl, which while crazy and over-the-top from time to time, is at the very least, always entertaining.
Tim: And that’s just it: the plot threads never tie together all that well. We meander from her initial suspicions of Ben/Mike to her suspicions and semi-affair with Nasch to her son and her friend and her new suspicion of Ben/Mike, but to what end? And as we’ve already said, there was an opportunity to go somewhere that doesn’t seem to have been taken.
James: Which just makes the whole thing kind of forgettable – haha. The weirdest thing about the film from my standpoint is that it’s just well made enough to expect a little more from it. Director Rowan Joffe (Brighton Rock) gives the film a sheen of chilliness that from time to time is quietly effective. That the filmmaking itself is decent, however, kind of works as a disservice for the movie – it’s a little too well made (and cast) to be a silly schlocker.
Tim: As I said to you when we left the theater, “Well, that was a movie.”