Before I Go to Sleep (2014)
92 min., rated R.
Losing one's memory seems like it would be one of the most horrifying and frustrating situations a person could endure, next to losing his or her sight or hearing, so, of course, such a condition becomes ripe for a thriller in the cinematic world. Adapted from S.J. Watson's 2011 novel by writer-director Rowan Joffe (2010's "Brighton Rock"), "Before I Go to Sleep" uses anterograde amnesia as a gimmick for its amnesia-thriller plot mechanics, and before the shocking revelations even rear their head, it has the makings of a compelling corker, somewhat like the more intricately plotted "Memento." Writer-director Rowan Joffe brings a stodgy chilliness to the production, and for a while, it seems that his film might be classier and more psychological than some lurid, twisty trash. Alas, "Before I Go to Sleep" eventually goes off the rails as an exercise in manipulation with a "Sleeping with the Enemy"-like climax and a treacly, unearned epilogue out of a Lifetime movie.
Ten years ago, 40-year-old Christine Lucas (Nicole Kidman) was the victim in an accident that left her bloodied and bludgeoned to the head, leaving no traces of memory of the life she has lived. Now, she wakes up each morning, thinking she's still in her 20s and confused to whom the man sleeping next to her is but happens to be her loving, supportive husband, Ben (Colin Firth), who has put together a collage of photographs of them together and post-it notes of their relationship. The most recent morning, after Ben goes to work, Christine receives a call from helpful, understanding neuropsychiatrist Dr. Nasch (Mark Strong), who has been treating her without her husband's knowledge and encouraged her to make her own video diary entries on a camera she hides from Sam. As Christine starts to have recurring glimpses of her past—and the accident itself, which might have been an attack—she's unsure of whom she can trust.
"Before I Go to Sleep" is certainly classed up by its excellent performers who bring a human component and dress up this tawdry material into something more thought-provoking at first. No, Christine doesn't discover the horror of horrors that she used to be a secret government operative. The film is initially involving, too, as we are with Christine piecing together how she got to where she is now, but it ends up not doing much with its promising hook. Perhaps S.J. Watson's book answered such questions, but Joffe's adaptation completely dismisses reality to severely test our suspension of disbelief. Does Christine not have any extended family outside of Ben? How does it take her so many years to realize a pregnancy scar on her belly? From there, the structure jumps back two weeks earlier, and red herrings try to throw us off and sympathies constantly shift between Ben and Dr. Nasch. Also, as if to keep his story from falling into catatonia, director Joffe employs an audience jolt, in which Christine nearly walks into an oncoming vehicle or gets jumpy over an airplane flying overhead, and uses it three or four times.
For most of the film, Nicole Kidman conveys real, fragile emotion and empathy as Christine, who's an imprisoned victim in a plot that uses the character's amnesia all too conveniently to function. Then, when Christine grows more aware of the life that has been erased from her memory, she grows helpless before turning into one of those woman-in-peril heroines that, within an inch of her life, still manages to bash a lamp over her attacker's head and sneak a shard of glass to stab him in the arm. Colin Firth manages the possibility of being a loving husband or someone sinister as Ben, and the solid Mark Strong takes the bench as Dr. Nasch, who takes a chance on Christine and straddles the line between compassionate and unethical, and might as well be wearing a sign that reads "Red Herring" since he's always playing a handsome baddie. Though she only appears in one scene, Anne-Marie Duff (UK TV's "Shameless") makes a heartbreaking impression as Christine's long-lost friend Claire. Nearing its final third, the film muddies certain character motivations so they make little sense, and once we get a bigger picture of what is going on, plot holes surface through the whole convoluted structure. The film's idea of getting a thrill also seems a bit exploitative and off-putting in watching Kidman being beaten up numerous times, but then the convenient use of an iron might get a bad laugh as well. Those who criticized "Gone Girl" for being misogynistic will have a field day with this one. After "Before I Go to Sleep" reveals its hand, it invites audiences to leave the theater and forget about it before the lights even come up.