MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 1999
Stars : Annette Bening (Claire Cooper), Aidan Quinn (Paul Cooper), Stephen Rea (Dr. Silverman), Robert Downey, Jr. (Vivian), Dennis Boutsikaris (Dr. Stephens), Paul Guilfoyle (Jack Kay), Prudence Wright Holmes (Mary) Katie Sagona (Rebecca Cooper)
"In Dreams," Neil Jordan's new psychological horror/thriller, has a great visual motif--a sunken town--that I hoped would be more important than it turned out to be. Part of the story's background is that this small town was purposefully evacuated and flooded in the mid-1960s with two billion gallons of water in order to create a reservoir. This flooding figures into the disastrous childhood of one of the major characters, and the sunken town shows up repeatedly in the nightmares of Claire Cooper (Annette Bening), a housewife and children's book author who is haunted by the dreams of a serial killer.
Jordan and cinematographer Darius Khondji ("Seven") turn this submerged ghost town into a haunting visual that is far better than the movie wrapped around it. The opening credits are set against cascading underwater shots of the town, which is an extraordinarily creepy vista of blue water, murky shadows, and shimmering sunlight coming down from above. The sight of a the town's main street--complete with a '50s-style diner, a church, and numerous other storefronts--hidden beneath the waters is a chilling and fascinating big-screen vision. Another visual motif Jordan employs is that of apples--sometimes thousands of them--which never achieves the kind of horrifying grandeur of the sunken town.
This is certainly familiar territory for Jordan, who is often at his best when dealing with foreboding atmosphere and kinky themes. Some of the darkness in the film is reminiscent of "Interview With the Vampire" (1994), its bizarre Freudian twists might make one think of "The Crying Game" (1992), and the film's macabre variation on nursery rhymes and its obsession with the Brothers Grimm and imagery from their fairy tales brings to mind Jordan's breakthrough film, "The Company of Wolves" (1984). Unfortunately, as a whole, "In Dreams" does not live up to its individual parts. It has some great moments and some terrible moments; some genuine chills and some clumsy, forced ones.
The story follows Claire (Bening) as she is fed dreams by a serial killer named Vivian (played as an adult by Robert Downey, Jr.). Screenwriters Jordan and Bruce Robinson ("Jennifer Eight"), working from a novel by Bari Wood, drop this narrative component on the audience right at the beginning of the film with little or no explication. Questions may arise in the viewer's mind, such as: Has Claire always been telepathic? Does she see other people's dreams? Why is Vivian feeding his dreams to her? Does he feed them to anyone else? What other psychic powers do they have? If you think too much about these questions, most of the movie's enjoyment will be lost. The plot of "In Dreams" is not one to think much about--just let it wash over you.
Claire is married to an airline pilot, Paul (Aidan Quinn), and there is a brief subplot about how he may or may not be having an affair. This plotline doesn't go very far, and its significance (if it has any at all) is never made clear. At any rate, Paul is somewhat skeptical about his wife's claims about her dreams, but not so skeptical that he doesn't make one trip to the police station to convince a detective that his wife knows where a missing child is. It turns out that she doesn't know about that particular child, because she was actually seeing into the future of another child, which brings up a whole new schlew of questions about her psychic abilities.
From there, the movie starts on a downward spiral as Claire becomes increasingly neurotic, and she is finally locked in an asylum complete with padded cells. A friendly psychologist (Stephen Rea--would it be a Neil Jordan film without him?) tries to help, but he is of little aid because he keeps trying to explain her behavior scientifically and rationally. For instance, hen she tells him that she dreamed about a girl named Ruby who Vivian has abducted, he tries to interpret "Ruby" as "red," which is the color paint she scrawled on the walls of her house right before she was committed.
"In Dreams" actually sustains its bloated narrative for more than an hour. Even if some of it seems far-fetched, Jordan engages the audience with outlandish style, technical wizardry, and a kind of reckless abandon that is either his way of letting us know we shouldn't be taking any of it too seriously, or evidence that he had no control over what he was doing.
The movie is replete with eye-popping imagery: the aforementioned underwater ghost town, an exploding sink, washed-out dreams sequences, an over-the-shoulder view of Bening driving her car off a bridge and into the river below, and a production of "Snow White and the Seven Dwarves" by a bunch of elementary school children that has the production values of a Broadway musical (only in the movies). The problem is that Jordan never manages to wed any of these visuals into a meaningful whole (although I suppose the "Snow White" play is somehow metaphorically linked to the apples). Most of the scenes draw their power separately, thus they have no connective power.
Plausibility is always a question, and "In Dreams" is the kind of movie where, if you don't get on the train in the first ten minutes, you'll never catch it. Jordan seems to know this, but the only problem is that, even those of us who catch the train can't help but want to get off once Bening finally meets face-to-face with the Robert Downey, Jr. character.
Downey Jr. gives one of the most bizarre performances in his career, and everything he does contributes nothing to our understanding of his character. He seems to be something of a gender-bender, varying between effeminate lisping and hot-blooded rage. We know that Mommy used to beat him and even tried to drown him, but how that all connects to his serial killing is explained only in a trivial diatribe about how all he wants is a "family." The climax of the film bogs down immeasurably, especially when you consider the frenetic pace of the previous hour and a half. Jordan can't wait to get Bening and Downey Jr.'s characters together, but once they meet, there's nothing to do. The script runs out of steam, and so does the movie.
The film does have a satisfying denouement, however--a bit of bloody revenge from beyond the grave that works on a gratifying surface level for those who don't want to see evil win in the end. Although the finale is a bit audacious and creates a whole new list of questions about everything that happened before, it still works ... if you're willing to stay with the film that long.
©1999 James Kendrick