“Fever dream” has lately become an overused term in film marketing and criticism alike, often generically applied to anything faintly strange or surreal with fractured storytelling trickery and a lick of gauzy ambience. As a title for the latest feature from Peruvian director Claudia Llosa, it serves a similarly loose, woolly purpose, despite not being particularly apt: A psychological thriller in which two mothers fear their children’s souls have gone adrift, the film’s narrative unfolds less as fever dream than waking nightmare, though its hazy, sunstruck styling lends it a certain somnambulant quality.
As with Argentine writer Samanta Schweblin’s celebrated source novel — co-adapted by the author with Llosa — the film’s original Spanish title is rather more evocative. Translating as “The Rescue Distance,” referring to the protagonist’s constant mental calculations as to how long it would take her to reach her daughter in an emergency, it touches on the story’s more urgent themes of parental responsibility and helplessness, as well as the loaded existential poser at its core: Is it better to lose someone you love altogether or have them become a stranger to you? These intriguing elements are too often lost in the semi-mystical murk of “Fever Dream,” which is ultimately a curious marriage between the signature esotericism and environmental consciousness of Llosa’s cinema and the sleeker genre trappings of a Netflix original: Sure enough, it will be globally released on the platform on Oct. 13, a few weeks after premiering in competition at San Sebastian.
Seven quiet years have passed since Llosa’s first English-language feature, “Aloft,” which, despite the star presence of Jennifer Connelly and Cillian Murphy, wasn’t the career-changer she might have hoped for: A turgid, New Agey mother-son drama, it largely diminished the critical goodwill she had accrued from her Oscar-nominated film “The Milk of Sorrow.” Though it could stand to be more searching as a character study, and more suspenseful as a thriller, “Fever Dream” may well represent more of a commercial breakthrough, even as it returns the director closer to home turf: not Peru, but Chile, whose sun-kissed, stone-speckled countryside lends the film its consistently gorgeous backdrop. (Pablo Larraín has a co-producing credit.) The precise setting, however, remains ambiguous: From the outset, this is not a story of certainties.
A glitchy, ominous opening sequence threatens a full-on horror film, beginning with extreme close-ups of human body parts and undulating slugs. A woman is dragged by unseen forces across a damp, dark forest floor as a young boy’s disembodied voice counsels her to stay awake: “What you see, we all see.” It’ll take us some time to figure out how this discombobulating framing figures into proceedings as we cut to real-world daylight — as the same woman, Amanda (Spanish star Maria Valverde), arrives at an idyllic rural cottage for an extended getaway, her young daughter Nina (Guillermina Sorribes) in tow. Soon after, their friendly, vibrant neighbor Carola (Dolores Fonzi) arrives bearing pails of drinking water, with a warning not to trust what comes out of the tap: unsurprising on a farmstead, perhaps, though the first hint that there’s something unsound about the area.
The two women hit it off, though the film has barely established their friendship when the timeline splinters into Carola’s past, when she lived in the house Amanda is now occupying. Back then, she and her husband, Omar (Germán Palacios), planned to breed show horses, before a stallion’s mysterious death plunged them into debt. Meanwhile, in a seemingly related twist of fate, their young son, David (Marcelo Michinaux), fell suddenly and drastically ill, upon which a local faith healer (Cristina Banegas) advised a “spiritual migration,” transferring the diseased portion of his spirit into another body.
David survived, though according to Carola, the surly, near-feral preteen (an impressive Emilio Vodanovich) he has grown into is not her son. Amanda hears her story with appropriate skepticism, though it’s not long before she’s persuaded that something is eerily amiss with the boy, and fears that a part of sweet, loving Nina’s spirit may go missing too. Yet just as you think “Fever Dream” might be settling into an effectively disturbing study of parental neglect by delusion, Llosa finds another hessian rug to pull out from under us: Is there really something, quite literally, in the water? Are the toxins sprayed onto the crops, and carried by worms and insects, not just unnatural but unearthly too?
On paper, the face-off between nature and human nature in Schweblin’s novel makes it a good fit for Llosa, whose earthy previous films have often centered on that very tension. Yet the more “Fever Dream” tries to ground its story in explanations and earnest environmental panic, the more irretrievably it spirals into silliness, bordering on incoherence: The thinly drawn characters scarcely have appreciable souls to speak of, inside or outside their bodies, so it’s hard to take their escalating spiritual crisis quite as seriously as the filmmakers do. Which is a shame, because as a purely atmospheric exercise, “Fever Dream” often has the goods. Oscar Faura’s seductive lensing implies secrets hidden in dusky shadows and blinding sunlight, while Natalia Holt’s viola-heavy score is a thing of mournful, jittery beauty. There’s half a good film here: Where the rest has migrated to is another of its mysteries.