Nothing’s quite as it seems in “Dream House,” an initially teasing variation on the haunted-house movie that pivots in a radically different, uninspired direction. As an aspiring novelist with wife and kids in a large abode in deep winter, Daniel Craig does everything to dispel comparisons to Stanley Kubrick’s “The Shining,” with a finely tuned performance, but the film flattens as it tries to explain his character’s psychological state. Universal’s promo campaign necessarily suggests a different pic than delivered, and this, plus depressed word of mouth, will equal B.O. foreclosure.
David Loucka’s screenplay hinges on a dramatic twist at the halfway mark that fundamentally alters everything seen until that point; in retrospect, the device is considerably more clever in conception and execution than its overall ramifications. Script is not without dramatic potential, and indeed has drawn the talents of director Jim Sheridan, Craig and his fellow thesps Naomi Watts, Rachel Weisz, Marton Csokas and Elias Koteas. But impressive as the combination may seem on paper, having Sheridan direct this sort of genre fare reps a clear miscasting of helmer and subject, as he displays no particular feel for the material and is unable to overcome the story’s generic approach, lack of striking psychological ideas, and literal-minded denouement.
Book editor Will Atenton (Craig) has decided to leave his Manhattan publishing house to write his long-in-the-works first novel in the newly bought suburban home he shares with loving wife Libby (Weisz) and their cute young daughters, Trish and Dee Dee (actual sisters Taylor and Claire Astin Geare, respectively). All is bliss until the first sign of trouble with across-the-street neighbor Jack (Csokas), who’s fighting for custody of only daughter Chloe (Rachel Fox) with divorced wife Ann (Watts) and who shoots daggers at Will for no apparent reason.
Composer John Debney’s classically romantic cues early on shift in a more horror-movie direction as the girls think they see figures outside, the wind-whipped trees bang against the house and Will starts to hear voices. The domestic tranquility is finally broken by the odd spectacle of Will rousting a group of punkish (and badly made-up) teens from his basement, and of a threatening man evidently stalking the family from the front yard.
Further indication that the picture we’re seeing isn’t quite in focus comes from the quizzical, sometimes wordless interactions between Will and Ann, who clearly recognizes him even though he treats her as just a kindly new neighbor. Amplifying the growing dread, Will learns that five years ago, a family was gunned down in the house; the husband was the prime suspect but assigned to a mental hospital for lack of evidence. A brief and effective scene confirms that what haunts “Dream House” are not ghosts but matters of the mind.
The film’s second half focus predominantly on Craig’s increasingly worn and tortured face as he begins to absorb the dimensions of the puzzling situation around him. In theory, this is a smart role choice for the actor, pushing him into fresh emotional zones; in reality, Craig merely keeps his head above water as the movie implodes in a string of misjudged scenes, excessively literal exposition al passages and setpieces that have none of their intended impact.
Weisz is most affected by this negative turn in fortunes, though her role isn’t much to begin with; Watts’ Ann, who could have been a rich counterpart to Will, is similarly underwritten and under-realized. Csokas and Koteas prove classy casting choices for menacing but one-dimensional men.
Working in widescreen, ace cinematographer Caleb Deschanel reaffirms his ability to establish a range of moods and tones by subtly manipulating light and natural conditions, and creating a palpable sense of space. Other tech credits are merely standard, including subpar special effects and some audibly post-dubbed dialogue.