Dark, scary and uncompromising, Neil Jordan’s “In Dreams” is a wildly eccentric picture: a metaphysical horror tale that’s likely to intrigue cerebral viewers but will frustrate the more typical horror crowd fond of “Scream” and its offshoots. In an extremely challenging role that calls for her to appear in almost every frame, Annette Bening gives a riveting performance as a bright, married career woman whose mind is invaded by irrational and supernatural forces. Well-mounted, with startling imagery from ace lenser Darius Khondji, DreamWorks’ release should enjoy a decent opening, but iffy reviews and unenthusiastic word-of-mouth will curtail B.O., due to an intense, convoluted narrative with a downbeat tone and shockingly unconventional ending, which doesn’t provide the genre’s customary pay-off.
“In Dreams” is not as flawed as Jordan’s other big budget Hollywood movies, but it lacks the coherence and creative control of most of his small-scale Irish pictures. Mining similar terrain as “The Company of Wolves,” a horror film structured as an adult fairy tale, Jordan’s new effort — which also works as a fairy tale — might be similarly dismissed as seedy, lurid and mean-spirited.
Though the script, which concerns the relatively unexplored and scientifically taboo realm of clairvoyance, is based on a novel and written in collaboration with Bruce Robinson, those familiar with Jordan’s work will be able to detect familiar thematic motifs: lost childhood, the haunting of the mind by irrational and unconscious forces, gender-bending and cross-dressing, the inextricable effect of the past on the present and, above all, unusual pairings and psychological ambiguity.
Opening credits reveal a watery ghost town entirely buried by floods decades ago. The underwater motif enhances the yarn’s dimension of a hideous, seemingly forgotten past that comes to haunt the present residents of a now-idyllic pastoral town. Claire (Bening), a children’s books illustrator, is married to a loving pilot (Aidan Quinn), and they have a young daughter, Rebecca (Katie Sagona). But Claire’s modern marriage is strained by incessant dreams; even their lovemaking is interrupted by haunting images and sudden outbursts of violence.
Claire’s recurrent dreams reveal themselves in snippets and fragments: a little boy chained to a bed, a girl kidnapped by a faceless adult in an orchard of red apples. During one of her hubby’s business trips, Claire dreams of her daughter’s disappearance, and, sure enough, hours later, Rebecca’s body is lifted out of the lake by cops. In a manner of self-fulfilling prophecies, every single nightmare of Claire’s materializes. Driven to find out the true nature of her dreams — and those who annoyingly feed them — she becomes increasingly obsessed, eventually descending into madness and asylum institutionalization.
It may not be a coincidence that Jordan, a subversive filmmaker, constructs all the characters that stand for rationality as male authority figures: husband Cooper, detective Jack Kay (Paul Guilfoyle), hospital doctor Stevens (Dennis Boutsikaris) and Dr. Silverman (Stephen Rea), a specialist brought in to work intimately with Claire. And like other Jordan pictures, this one can be seen as a critique of the nuclear, bourgeois family.
A blend of psychological drama and supernatural horror, “In Dreams” is a movie in which nothing is what it appears to be. Through eerily dark destiny, the paths of Claire and a serial killer on the loose crisscross and their fates intertwine, underscoring their duality as two sides of the human psyche, with Claire representing the good and right, and he the evil and wrong.
Final reel, which is the weakest and most overheated visually, is confined to a cider factory, where Claire confronts her torturer. Echoing elements of “The Silence of the Lambs,” and far more respectful of generic conventions than earlier segments, finale is directed in an amusingly self-conscious and reflexive manner, allowing horror aficionados to have a smile or two while watching some of the most frightening moments, a result of the excessively quirky dialogue and some over-the-top acting.
Taken seriously, “In Dreams” provides a wry commentary on the medical and psychiatric professions, both quick to label Claire’s conduct as delusional if not paranoid. The film also refutes such established notions as scientific progress and rational pragmatism. Viewers skeptical of the film’s more metaphysical themes should still be able to appreciate the sense of dread that permeates the entire yarn. From the start, in a shrewdly Hitchcockian manner, Jordan implicates the viewers, placing them in Claire’s subjective mind, as they are the only ones to see the terrifying validity of her dreams.
In what’s arguably her most commanding role since “The Grifters,” Bening is perfectly cast as a recognizably contempo woman whose mind and life disintegrate to a point of no return. With limited screen time, mostly in the last reel, Robert Downey Jr. reps the underbelly of the dream world, an adult who has never really grown up, still childlike, misinformed, desperate to connect.
Rea, a Jordan regular, renders a low-key, understated performance as the doctor who initially symbolizes the rational element of culture, until his value system utterly collapses under the crushing evidence. Rest of the supporting ensemble is equally impressive.
Reversing Hollywood’s depiction of dream sequences — usually in black-and-white — lenser Khondji goes wild with colors, objects and textures. Color separation is achieved with filters that distort images, giving them a richly saturated, almost surreal feel. Though red dominates, each dream is staged and filmed in a radically different style, some with hand-held camera, others like still tableaux.
Shot in the fall in Massachusetts’ Pioneer Valley, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Tennessee (for its dams) and Rosarito, Mexico (for the ghost town covered in water), pic represents one of DreamWorks most elaborately produced efforts, with superb technical values across the board.