She Knows Nothing, then Too Much
In Before I Go To Sleep, a woman wakes up one morning and appears to be escaping a forgettable one-night stand. The truth is, she does that every morning, tiptoeing away from the same strange man in her bed. Her name is Christine, and she has no memory of the day before. A display of photos in the bathroom tries to calm her down, images of her wedding with the man that was asleep beside her. His name is Ben and he will shortly greet her, paraphrase their life together, and head to work.
You quickly find out that Christine, played by Nicole Kidman, is an amnesiac from an undisclosed (for now) accident years ago. Her husband Ben, a tired-looking Colin Firth, tells her the basic necessities of their suburban English life, but also withholds certain previous events that might open Pandora’s box. And so they temporarily remain mysterious clues in director Rowan Joffe’s adaptation of S.J. Watson’s eponymous novel. Slowly, truths emerge—does she have a son?– that begin blowing down the house of cards Ben has carefully, methodically placed.
That’s mostly thanks to Dr. Nasch (Mark Strong), a neuro-psychologist that sees Christine each day without Ben knowing. He gives her a call, explains who he is and what he’s been doing, and she naively obliges to see him. He picks her up in his car and later gives her a camera. She secretly records a short video of the information she has gained each day so she can inform her own blank-slated self the next morning… so she can have someone to trust.
This is a somewhat intriguing setup to a primarily cinematic problem, which can range from romance (Groundhog Day) to comedy (50 First Dates) to thriller (Memento). It seems best used for this type of proposed horror. The genre often requires a momentous energy, but, as the movie’s title implies, it seems to function more in an enervated state, splashed with water to keep you focused. The alarm clocks it supplies are variations on a comical theme, mostly near-death accidents with oncoming vehicles. Kidman nearly gets run over by a car, a factory crate loader, and a trash truck. These don’t suggest anything other than wanting you to jump.
Others work better. Joffe swerves the frame from Kidman’s eye to begin the movie and later returns to it, a close up of her red-veined paranoia, quickly taking in her daily unfamiliar surroundings. He also implements the sound of a harsh jet plane, which slowly finds context in Christine’s visceral, spontaneous memories. They’re spurred on by a friend, Claire (Anne-Marie Duff), a person Ben lied about before Christine sleuthed her out. The wedding photos in the bathroom display aren’t so much a collage but an investigation board, something police would use to find a serial killer. All that’s missing is the yarn string.
Joffe is trying for Hitchcock here in a story that at times wants to supersede Gone Girl’s twists and other times appears mild and tame. Kidman runs down a hallway screaming with blood and the stringy score accompanies the chaos. But the chill never happens. When Dr. Nasch and Christine spend time in an underground parking garage, Joffe makes sure he creates a double image, splitting the screen with the orange-lit, wet pavement reflection. The visual themes don’t stitch together. Joffe has hoped to get horror by tossing in ominous jigsaw pieces and hoping they somehow align.
He has to rely on his actors instead. Kidman, reteaming with Firth from their time in The Railway Man, conjures Christine from previous, similar roles, like Rabbit Hole, brilliantly negotiating between confidence and confusion. This isn’t the right role for Firth but he manages to find something menacing in his glum appearance. He’s hardly recognizable sometimes. They hold the believability for as long as they can but it eventually becomes too difficult to sell an average product trapped in the wrong market. You’ll eventually want to slink away like Christine.