TRIBECA Review: YOU SHALL NOT SLEEP is a Unique Spin On Possession
As an actor it’s hard to explain the feeling of falling into a role. It’s akin to dunking your head underwater, an image repeated in Gustavo Hernandez’s You Shall Not Sleep. Your senses heighten, despite feeling like you are swimming just below the surface of reality. You’re aware of every sound in the room, muffled like your ears are full off water. It’s a scary feeling to allow yourself to go to this place, but it’s this fear that electrifies us as performers. Fear let’s us slip into the skin of someone else. But what if when you go to this beyond, you meet something else...something beyond our comprehension. And what if they want to get out?
Set in 1984, Bianca is a budding actor in Buenos Aires performing Ismene in Sophocles’ Antigone. Her father suffers from an undisclosed mental illness that leaves him in fear that mysterious magick forces are attempting to infiltrate his life. After a violent episode, Bianca must commit her father while she pursues a potential life changing role in a new mysterious play called "Ursa Major", directed by the controversial auteur Alma Bohr. What makes her controversial is her modalities, pushing actors to limits they may not typically go. She’s dabbled in hunger and suffocation, but now she is pushing further into sleep deprivation. Her opus, “Ursa Major” is a play with an unknown author and a missing ending that is set in an asylum that was abandoned two decades before due to a tragic fire that claimed the lives of patients and staff. But as Bianca goes days without sleep, she's pushed to the limits of insomnia to tap into a potential other world, a Limbo between our reality and what lies beyond. You Shall Not Sleep is a highly clever take on possession stories like we have never seen before and the slickness with which director Gustavo Hernandez tells it made me nostalgic for the late 90’s studio horror pictures of Bill Malone. But while the scope that the creatives attempted to achieve is admirable, I can’t help but feel it buckles under its own ambition.
It’s a hard balance to strike explaining some of the more twisty elements while retaining a shred of mystery and You Shall Not Sleep gives us too much of both. Through repetitive recaps that feel borrowed from the final moments of a Saw film, with voice over from Alma, the creatives lay out specifically what they want us to know. Like a highlighter they predict the questions we have, but it feels as if they don’t trust the audience. While the helping hand is appreciated, I yearned for the creatives to let the viewer come to our own conclusions. By clearly laying out the entire plot, like the stage directions that Bianca finds of “Ursa Major”, the play-within-the-movie we miss the communal discussion of “What do you think this meant?” like we would continue to do with a film like Session 9 by Brad Anderson, which feels like a clear inspiration for Hernandez. The films both have a connection of heartbreaking longing, but ambiguity is a friend of the ghost story. And while what can’t be scientifically explained can be touched on through art, the mystery of what it is is what drives the tension of these stories. It’s what makes them work. And through over explanation, it can lose not only its charm...but its steam.
But despite these quibbles, at its heart You Shall Not Sleep is a damn good ghost story twist on real life sleep studies compounded with CreepyPasta’s like The Russian Sleep Experiment. And while the conclusion may leave some to be desired, the journey to get their is an imaginative phantasmagoria.