For a disorder that is relatively rare, anterograde amnesia—the brain’s sudden inability to create new memories—has been at the center of an alarming number of movies: It afflicted Guy Pearce in Christopher Nolan’s backwards noir Memento, doomed Drew Barrymore to 50 First Dates with Adam Sandler, and threw a monkey wrench into small-time hood Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s life in The Lookout. It’s a useful device, especially in a thriller, as it puts the audience and the brain-damaged protagonist on equal footing when it comes to unwinding the plot and discovering the twists.
Nicole Kidman is the latest victim in Before I Go To Sleep, a well-constructed mystery full of pitch-black turns that disappointingly deflates by the end. Kidman plays Christine, a woman who has spent the last 14 years of her life waking up with a blank slate. She has only her husband Ben (Colin Firth) to guide her, along with a helpful series of photos and Post-It notes with which she tries to reconstruct a working version of her life. Once she attracts the assistance of a curious neurologist (Mark Strong), Christine begins to piece together details from her life that Ben has been hiding from her, including the fate of their child and a more sinister version of the story of the accident that left her unable to create new memories.
Writer/director Rowan Joffe, who also made the taut crime family biography Brighton Rock, uses Kidman to excellent effect. Even at her most centered and calm, Kidman grants Christine a perpetual internal desperation. She knows that everything anyone tells her is a lie. As she peels away the layers on her relationship with Firth’s Ben, Sleep becomes as intense a meditation on marriage and fidelity as the similarly bleak Gone Girl.
However, unlike David Fincher’s latest, Sleep pulls back from the precipice after spending its third act barreling toward a decidedly bleak cliff. After a series of gut-wrenching revelations, the back-door redemption at the end feels tacked-on and cheap. Sleep is 91 minutes of delightfully twisted tension and three minutes of eye-rolling treacle. Kidman and Firth are both excellent in their sadness and savagery, and Joffe builds tension far better than most of the horror movies available at your local Cineplex this Halloween weekend. If only he had quit while he was ahead. B