Monday Movie: To Sleep with Anger, by Alexander Miller
Every Monday, we’ll highlight a piece of writing from our vaults. This article originally ran as a Criterion Prediction.
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 a 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, 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 and seduce people. 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 the cunning to contort people to his satisfaction. We can thank Danny Glover’s stellar performance for giving us both avenues. He and Burnett make something palatably dense here. 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.