What do you get if you take the ending of 50 First Dates and turn it into a thriller? Why, Before I Go To Sleep, of course. Nicole Kidman takes over for Drew Berrymore as a woman who loses her memory every night and wakes up to find herself not single and in her early 20s, but a 40-year-old married woman who must learn about the last fourteen years of her life all over again each day.
Funny enough, a familiarity with Adam Sandler’s comedy actually inhibits the opening moments of Before I Go To Sleep. In 50 First Dates, Sandler falls in love with, and subsequently marries, Berrymore after the injury that left her with her memory impediment. This isn’t the case with Christine (Kidman), our main character in Before I Go To Sleep, but that’s not immediately clear. So when we initially see the challenges which her husband Ben (Firth) must face on a daily basis given her condition, there is some confusion about how he fell in love with and decided to marry this very difficult woman in the first place. Eventually this is straightened out – Christine’s last memory comes from 1999, but the event which caused her mental lapses didn’t occur until the mid-2000s – but whether it’s only due to my assumptions or not, the movie does start on a bit of a questionable note.
The main drama comes from the fact that, unbeknownst to Ben, Christine has made contact with a neuropsychiatrist by the name of Dr. Nasch (Mark Strong). As part of a therapy regimen to try to retrieve her lost memories, Nasch has given Christine a camera to record a “memory” of her daily events, and he calls her every morning after Ben leaves for work to remind her to look for it. He also tells her that, contrary to Ben’s explanation that she was in an accident, police reports say Christine was violently beaten the night she lost her memory. Not sure that she can trust her own husband, Christine begins to investigate as best she can given her condition.
As a thriller, Before I Go To Sleep works about like you’d expect it to, mining Christine’s and the audience’s incomplete knowledge for tension and throwing in a few twists and red herrings to keep the plot moving. And that’s fine, it works, but it’s also about as unremarkable as that pretty generic description would suggest. We’re made to believe that all is not well pretty much from the get-go, so the twists that do exist feel very telegraphed. Said differently, a basic familiarity with this genre ensures you already know everything is not as it seems, and the plot here doesn’t do anything particularly creative or unusual within that framework. So the question becomes whether you’re up for just another thriller or not.
Part of the problem is that Christine is mostly a blank slate that the movie wants the audience to project upon. It’s a nifty tactic, and since we approach each event with basically the same prior knowledge as Christine it even works a lot of the time. On the other hand Christine should be more than a mere audience stand-in; she’s a character who has a history, and this history is key to the emotional payoff of the story, which isn’t as poignant as you’d hope. It’s clear that on the average day before the movie starts, Christine would’ve probably spent most of the time learning about herself and her past. This is characterization that the movie skews light on, but would have potentially done a lot to humanize and embody Christine beyond the more generic victim of assault that she plays through most of the narrative. Nicole Kidman’s performance is fine, but there’s not much range for her to explore. The same is mostly true for Colin Firth and Mark Strong as well; there’s a strong pedigree behind all three leads, but like the movie as a whole, there just nothing remarkable about this particular time out.
Really what stood out most was a vague sense of unease at watching a movie where the central character, a woman, spends virtually the entire picture being helplessly manipulated by two men. I don’t mean to say that there is something necessarily wrong with the narrative; the sexual tension that briefly exists between Christine and Dr. Nasch is such a strange and minor part of their relationship that if you cut it out, there’s not a whole lot tying Nasch as a character to either gender. But the fact is that it does exist, if ever so briefly. Likewise, Christine doesn’t have any memory of this man who she wakes up next to (naked, when we first see her) and who calls himself her husband. It all feels vaguely exploitative (and moreso as the movie goes on) without every really addressing the issue, which seems like it should be a central one, head-on. If there was any thematic issue the movie felt well-positioned to attack, it’s this one, but it feels like it watched three strikes go by without ever taking a swing.
The Verdict: 2 out of 5
If you’re in the market for a thriller and aren’t picky, Before I Go To Sleep might be your movie. If not, though, the parts where this is nothing more than a by-the-numbers genre piece far outpace some interesting bits here and there. Before I Go To Sleep is a movie that works fine mechanically, but never steps beyond the baseline of, “Eh, that’s ok I guess,” even in the places it feels best equipped to actually be meaningful.