Criterion Prediction #127: To Sleep with Anger, by Alexander Miller
Title: To Sleep With Anger
Director: Charles Burnett
Cast: Danny Glover, Paul Butler, Mary Alice, Reina King, Cory Curtis, Richard Brooks, Carl Lumbly
Synopsis: Gideon and Suzie used to live in the south but have since uprooted their family to South Central Los Angeles. They have two adult sons: Samuel (Brooks), who is struggling to raise a family of his own, and Junior (Lumbly), who is more collected and disciplined. However, their relative peace is dismantled upon the arrival of a mysterious visitor, an old friend of Gideon’s from their time in the south, immediately the patriarch becomes ill, and Harry’s presence becomes subtly malevolent, while the family disintegrates.
Critique: Charles Burnett, armed with a more substantial budget, some star power, and an overall broader canvas works out what might be his strongest directorial effort. To Sleep with Anger is both modern gothic and domestic psychological thriller that’s reminiscent of Shadow of a Doubt, and might bear some referential kinship to “stranger danger” movies ala Pacific Heights or The Hand that Rocks the Cradle. But Burnett’s a hell of a lot smarter than cheap thrills, conventional frissons of suspense, or any traditional trajectory in this moody slice of black Americana.
Danny Glover is an enigmatic drifter, a witchy man who possesses that sly talking, gravelly voiced, old-timey Southern charm. He’s mainly terrifying because he’s the type of villain who smiles. The kind who can manipulate his environment, seduce people and when he sinks his teeth into Gideon and Suzie’s family To Sleep With Anger elevates from an intelligent examination of cultural mores to a fiendishly shrewd and quietly maintained horror film. Glover’s homespun timbre and menacing aura lends the character of Harry a duality that evokes the supernatural as well as the tangential. Harry could very well be an emissary for the devil, an evil incarnate. Harry’s presence is in concert with the incapacity of the father, Gideon, while pitting brother against brother in the process. The sins of the father beget a Cain and Abel type thing. Or, Harry could just be a manipulative dude, with swagger and cunning to contort people to his satisfaction, and we can thank Danny Glover’s stellar performance for giving us both avenues, he and Burnett made something palatably dense here. And therein lies the brilliance of Burnett’s writing and direction, it’s a rich tapestry that touches on the transitional stigma of black culture, mythic voodoo ritualism, the intersection of black families in contemporary America (especially in the residual Reagan era economy), and the overarching theme of family. A superlative cast commands an original concept that demands repeat viewings and a bigger audience. It feels like an older cousin to Get Out.
Why It Belongs in the Collection: I love discovering something new. While I was aware of Charles Burnett from Killer of Sheep, To Sleep With Anger, his third feature, was for some reason further off the radar and it wasn’t until I found some off-brand streaming website that I could finally see it. Sure, finding a movie that’s “new” to you is something of a discovery, but tracking down this elusive bit of business was a minor treasure, and isn’t that one of the wonders of The Criterion Collection? A lesser seen, poorly distributed film with cult appeal that features a stellar performance from a major star, To Sleep with Anger has got “Criterion Treatment” written all over it. This title is long overdue for rediscovery.