“Sleep” is a Deeply Disturbing Domestic Nightmare [BUFF Review]

Nothing exemplifies the saying  “you don’t know what you got till it’s gone” like quality sleep. Both a luxury and a fundamental element of daily life, human beings cannot survive without adequate time away from the waking world. But what happens during those precious hours we spend lost in sleep? When we give up consciousness, we also abdicate control of our bodies, opening the door for anything and everything to slip in. What responsibility do we have for actions committed while we doze and can we truly trust the person we lay down next to? Jason Yu’s Sleep plays with notions of unconscious control in a deeply disturbing domestic nightmare. What initially presents as a simple disorder rapidly pushes a loving couple to the brink of murder and madness.

Soo-jin (Jung Yu-mi) is nearing the end of her pregnancy when her husband Hyun-su (Lee Sun-kyun) wakes her up in the middle of the night. “Someone’s inside,” he mutters then immediately falls backwards onto their bed, dead to the world. While perfectly loving and supportive during the day, Hyun-su begins moving strangely during his sleep. Not only does he viscously scratch his own face, he walks to the fridge and unconsciously devours uncooked eggs and raw meat. He wakes each morning with no memory of the night’s frightening occurrences and Soo-jin begins to fear for her own safety. Medicine fails to solve the problem and Hyun-su’s superstitious mother-in-law insists a malevolent force is at play. The arrival of their newborn daughter only exacerbates the problem and Soo-jin’s world begins to spin out of control. Only a supernatural intervention can save her from the mysterious enemy invading her home each night. 

Yu delivers a terrifying film that preys on a weakness we cannot escape. Each of us must close our eyes tonight and this terrifying film adds layers to an existing nightmare. While Hyun-su’s nocturnal activities are somewhat predictable, Yu twists the story in unexpected directions. Is this strange condition a natural disorder with a simple cure or a paranormal nightmare that may cost the couple their lives? A sensitive depiction of new parenthood adds depth to the story in a heart wrenching metaphor for postpartum depression. When she finally allows herself to sleep, Soo-jin imagines a series of horrendous deaths befalling her newborn daughter – each occurring at the hands of her husband. With dwindling trust in her only support system, this fragile new family teeters on the very edge of destruction. 

Both Jung and Lee are exceptional in their roles as nervous parents. Sweet moments of humor and heart ground us in this endearing couple’s former life, adding to the devastation when it all falls apart. We follow Soo-jin into the depths of hell as she becomes the primary caregiver for both her husband and child. Lee gives a subtly endearing performance that pays off well in the final act. A late stage turn sends chills up the spine and elevates a moment that might feel laughably disingenuous in other hands. 

We all know the momentary fear of turning out the lights and closing our eyes. Yu heightens this tension and turns the couple’s cozy home into a maze of nightmares. We are lost in the darkness along with Soo-jin, guarding against the uncontrollable monster she can’t help but love. Quick cuts replicate the disorienting feeling of being jolted awake and even the morning sunshine feels sinister as Soo-jin nervously wonders what horrors have occurred while she abandoned her watch. Her eyes grow more bloodshot and her actions more desperate as relentless fears bleed into the waking world. 

The final scene explodes into visceral horror as Soo-jin fully commits to her supernatural theory – come what may. The gloves are off and this fearsome mother will do anything to save the life of her child. The first two acts lure us in with steadily mounting dread, but the finale requires a massive logical leap of faith. Jumping forward in time, Soo-jin and Hyun-su seem to be recovering, but gruesome horror lurks in their decimated home. While thrilling, this ending requires heavy suspension of disbelief to enjoy the grisly violence and unpredictable twists. Yu bombards us with exposition as the shaky logic clicks into place. The payoff is there, but skeptical viewers may find themselves confused and unwilling to go along with this bizarre final act. 

Despite its messy ending, Sleep is a solid nightmare that hits close to home. Parents will feel seen by an authentic depiction of life with a newborn while those suffering from sleep disorders will likely feel as if someone is finally telling their story. It’s a deceptively simple premise with an impressive execution slightly marred by a mind-boggling conclusion. Yu spends over an hour setting the table for a sumptuous feast then finds that his narrative eyes are bigger than his stomach. Despite these final gasps, Sleep will likely have viewers investing in nightlights and thinking twice before laying down and closing their eyes. 

Jenn Adams is a writer, podcaster, and film critic from Nashville, TN. Find her social media nonsense @jennferatu.