The most remarkable thing about Before I Go to Sleep just might be how thoroughly unremarkable it is. Based on a popular novel, directed by a promising young filmmaker (Rowan Joffe, who made the solid Brighton Rock remake), and boasting a cast led by Nicole Kidman and Colin Firth, the thriller seems to have a lot going for it. Even the hook to the screenplay at least suggests things won’t play out in the most tediously predictable manner in imaginable. Yet despite all the talent involved, Before I Go to Sleep seems to slug its way across the screen. It’s lifeless, filled with supposedly shocking plot twists that most viewers with even a passing familiarity in genre mecahnics can guess and map out beat-for-beat shortly after the set up and characters have been established. Watching the movie feels more like a task than entertainment, and given that the filmmakers are peddling a genre that’s based entirely around entertainment, that’s a problem that can’t be overcome.
Kidman stars as a woman with a very particular type of amnesia that works perfectly as a plot contrivance. She can only retain memories during her waking hours. Every morning she awakens assuming that she’s a 20something, only to realize that she’s now middle-aged. Her loving husband (Firth) must calmly explain each morning that she suffered a traumatic accident years ago that left her in this state. Then she goes about each day in a state of semi-shock trying to figure out how the world works, climbs into bed with a man who she doesn’t really know, and starts the mess all over again in the morning. There is one slight twist that gets the “mystery” element up and running ,though. She recently started seeing a doctor (Mark Strong) who has a feeling that all is not quite what it seems. Every day they dig a little deeper into the reality of her condition, and every night before going to sleep she records herself explaining the new insights with a video camera that she then hides to rediscover after her husband leaves each morning. So, it’s safe to say that shady circumstances and tricky business is afoot, right?
As silly and ludicrous as that concept might be, it’s not bad for this type of trashy thriller. At least setting up the mystery comes wrapped in a more compelling narrative than the usual ‘happy couple ends stumbles into trouble’ routine. Sure, it’s stolen straight out of Memento, Groundhog Day, and even 50 First Dates, but at least we haven’t seen this very specific variation on the amnesiac movie theme before.
The trouble is that the movie has very little going for it beyond that premise. Once the betrayals set in and the secrets come to light, things get very familiar very quickly. An overly optimistic reviewer might convince themselves that’s the genre narrative equivalent of putting the audience into the main character’s mental state, but I’m not that forgivng. That would suggest a level of cleverness and self-consciousness in the writing that this movie certainly doesn’t have. It’s all by-the-numbers stuff, and given how few characters are even in the movie, simple process of elimination will give the whole game away pretty quickly (the usual movie mystery rule applies: pick out who is the most famous actor with the least to do and you’ve got your villain!).
Before I Go to Sleep’s painfully predictable script is such a downer that it pretty much prevents anyone involved from saving the movie no matter how hard they try. Joffe is a decent visual storyteller and knows how to pace a thriller properly, but that just means that the movie is proficient crap. Likewise Kidman, Firth, and Strong are all talented performers who act their hardest, desperately trying to inject emotion, realism, tension, or anything else of interest into the movie. All of that work goes to waste.
The fact that it’s such an accomplished production ultimately makes the movie’s failure even more frustrating. Given how bored you’ll get as a viewer as the movie trudges through it’s inevitable motions, that just means you’ll have more time to notice the occasionally pretty shot that Joffe frames, or when one of the actors does something that reminds you of one of their dozens of better performances. It only gives you a chance to reflect on just how many better movies there are out there that you could be spending your time on rather that this deathly dull dud.
If there’s anything about Before I Go to Sleep that interests you because it reminds you of another movie you like, do yourself a failure and watch the other movie you had in mind instead. It’s all you be thinking about while watching this waste of time anyways, so you might as well just cut to the chase.