Ah, the amnesia thriller. Is any other real-life medical condition more commonly used (and more commonly mischaracterized) in fiction? It's such an easy dramatic device: put someone in a strange situation, rob them of their memories and force them to solve the mystery of their past. Rowan Joffe's Before I Go to Sleep (based on S.J. Watson's best-selling novel of the same name) employs just about every amnesia thriller cliché it can stuff into 90 minutes, but never manages to generate any actual thrills.
Our amnesia-afflicted protagonist is Christine (Nicole Kidman, Eyes Wide Shut), a woman who... well, who what, exactly? She wakes up and discovers that she's sharing a bed with a man (Colin Firth, The King's Speech). The man says his name is Ben, and that he's her husband. He informs Christine that several years ago, she was in an accident that caused her to lose all of her memories. She seems to be able to collect and retain new memories over the course of a single day, but when each new day begins, everything is gone and the whole process starts over (Drew Barrymore suffered from a similarly contrived version of amnesia in 50 First Dates).
Uncertain of whether or not she can actually believe everything Ben is saying, Christine hires a doctor (Mark Strong, Body of Lies) to help her figure things out. How does she remember that she's hired a doctor? At the beginning of each day, the doctor gives her a call and brings her up to speed on what he's doing and what they've learned together thus far. It doesn't take long for Christine to realize that Ben's story doesn't completely line up with all of the information the doctor is giving to her. Thus, we are sent down a knotty, plotty trail of lies, deceptions, conspiracies and misunderstandings.
For a movie built on sensationalist thrills, Before I Go to Sleep feels awfully... uh, sleepy. Perhaps Joffe thought that his more subdued take on fundamentally silly material would give the film an element of grown-up class, but a plot this goofy needs more pulp energy than Joffe seems willing to provide. The film moves at a surprisingly sluggish pace, and its constant plot developments fail to inspire much interest due to the director's tendency to telegraph most of the twists well in advance. It feels less like an adaptation of a novel than an adaptation of an uninspired book report on a novel.
You would think that the presence of two Oscar winners in the cast would be at least some indication of quality, but Before I Go to Sleep mostly looks like a direct-to-video thriller that somehow managed to secure the services of some exceptional actors. Kidman is saddled with a rather thankless role, playing most of her scenes with looks of bewilderment and confusion. Is she convincing? Sure, of course she is, but this material is beneath her. On the flip side, Colin Firth is largely hindered by the fact that his character is deliberately presented as an enigma. We're supposed to be uncertain of whether or not we can trust him, and the film neglects to give him any sort of personality or defining characteristics until the (ridiculous) third act. Mark Strong is persuasive as a man who says serious things in a serious manner and occasionally offers concerned reaction shots. These three are so much better than this.
The most troubling aspect of Before I Go to Sleep is the manner in which it handles emotionally-loaded material. Child death, rape and abuse are heavy subjects, but the film employs them rather casually in a bid to generate cheap emotional manipulation. The movie isn't equipped to deal with the weight of these topics, and doesn't earn the right to depict some of the things that it does. Rather than delivering a gripping story filled with interesting characters and surprising plot developments, the movie simply throws hot-button subjects at us and hopes that'll be enough to sustain our interest. The effort fails, leaving us with the worst sort of offensively bad movie: the kind that's too boring to actually offend.
Before I Go to Sleep
Rating: ★ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: R
Running Time: 92 minutes
Release Year: 2014