Dream House

Psychosis or real world? Just watch the hair.
★★
☆☆☆☆
Released: 
2011
Director: 
Jim Sheridan
Starring: 
Daniel Craig, Naomi Watts, Rachel Weisz, Elias Koteas, Martin Csokas
The Setup: 
Guy learns that he may have murdered his family.
Discussion: 

I had dinner with a friend I hadn't seen in several years, one I've mentioned in the reviews of Fear Dot Com and... whatever that clone movie was with Greg Kinnear (Godsend)? He was quite insistent that I watch this film, and sent me several reminders, so I knew I had to make it priority. He has a specialized taste in bad movies, in that he likes movies that are professionally made and don't have outward flaws, it's just that everything about their entire conception is JUST SO WRONG. And such is the case here.

This is one of those discs specially made for Netflix where all you get is the feature film, no extras, which they announce up front with a message exhorting you to "own it" (sounds less craven than "buy it," right?) in order to see all the amazing extra features. And you kind of want to respond "Okay, you do realize that your film is a PIECE OF SHIT, right? That no one wants to see the extras on your crummy critical and box office failure and are only watching the film out of morbid curiosity?" Then they have the gall to force you, fucking freeloader, to sit through FOUR MINUTES of trailers for Universal Pictures garbage such as Scorpion King 3 (I shit you not) that you cannot skip or fast-forward through. I put the disc in my computer to get screen grabs from it but then thought fuck it, I'll just grab screens from the Internet because I can NOT sit trough that shit again. The nadir is this long thing about how "Today's consumer has more choice than ever before!" which means you can watch movies at home, on the computer, or mobile device. I'm so glad they told me this, otherwise I might never have known. The video shows "dude"-types with gentle scruff pretending to get fuckin' PUMPED by such pieces of crap as Couples Retreat and that shitty Robin Hood movie with Russell Crowe that no one saw. I can't help but hear the over eager announcer saying "Universal brings the shittiest movies to you at home, or on the go! Now you can watch the world's worst films wherever you are!" There was some piece of shit animated film as well--one of the numerous Madagascars?--and as I watch the smiling Asian lady hand it to her toddler to be "entertained" in the supermarket aisle, I can't help but hear her exclaim "Now, even in the processed snacks aisle, I can deliver my child's mind over to the corporate enslaver!"

This is the price you pay for not "owning" Dream House on DVD or Blu-Ray with Digital Download.

Alrighty then, the film. We open at a prestigious New York City publishing firm, where Daniel Craig as Will Atenton is celebrating his last day of work. He is retiring to move upstate with his wife and finally write that great novel. Everyone is saying goodbye but I was riveted by the fact that these people do not have all-day access to coffee, but seemingly a once-a-day coffee cart that comes around in the afternoon? WHAT the fuck is that? (we'll come back to it). Anyway, Will gets on the train and goes home, where he is watched by a mysterious Elias Koteas. It is snowing now, and almost all the time during the film. He arrives home and we meet his lovely wife, Libby, played by Rachel Weisz with an aggressive American accent, and his two standard-issue adorable daughters.

So the next morning, the guy across the street glares at him. The woman across the street, played by Naomi Watts, looks at him sympathetically. Both seem to know him. Will works on his novel--which he seems to be writing by hand?--in a sort of scrapbook, including photos and drawings, with a cover decorated by his daughters that says "Dad's Dream House." The kids seem to see a strange man outside. Will discovers a bunch of goths having a ceremony in his basement, and that's how he finds out that his house was the site of a brutal murder, in which the father, Peter Ward, killed his wife and two daughters. He keeps it from Libby for a while, but the girls hear the teen girl across the street talking about it (which occasions Will's going across to meet Naomi, as Ann, officially). Then the movie spins its wheels for a while with stalkers outside the windows, cops who don't care (of course, maybe you should go to the police station, and not bother them during their lunch at the diner?), and mysterious assailants who drive cars up on the lawn, and are able to maneuver easily and with precision, despite there being over a foot of snow.

So this Peter Ward, who killed his family, was in a mental institution, then a halfway house. Will goes to the halfway house, and while the receptionist isn't looking, just walks upstairs into Ward's room, where he finds a photo of Libby and the kids. This precipitates the feint this movie goes in for a while, that it is Peter Ward himself who is stalking them. At home, he and Libby wonder what happened in the house, and look at newspaper clippings, and Will does this thing where he puts a microfilm in front of a flashlight and focuses it on the wall with a lens(?), and this whole time it's hard to sympathize with them because you're asking yourself: "Haven't they even HEARD of the Internet? If this case was such a big thing, they'd have all their questions answered in 30 seconds."

Now, if you've seen the trailer for this film, you know the big SHOCKER coming next, because for some reason they decided to give away everything this movie's got there, but for those who haven't, we'll put it behind spoiler alerts.

SPOILERS > > >
Will goes to the mental institution where Peter Ward was kept. Note that Will's hair is now mysteriously slicked back, whereas all along it's been light n' fluffy. He sees Ward having numerous psychotic fits, throwing shit around, and he finds out that Ward always protested his innocence. He sees that Ann (that's Naomi, remember?) visited him there. We learn that he refused to believe that he could have killed his family, so he started creating a new identity and denying that he even himself. Meanwhile you're at home like: "And they RELEASED this guy?" Oh, he's created a delusional other self that he lives in, but other than that, he's just FINE! But wait, bitches, prepare for a blow that YOUR meager brain cells may not even be REMOTELY prepared for.

Peter Ward turns to the camera, and guess what? It's Rosie O'Donnell! No, actually, it's Daniel Craig, and they tell him that HE is Peter Ward. That his last name, "Attenton," is a soundalike to his ID number, 8-10-10. As he leaves, he sees all the people from the publisher at the beginning, so that whole thing was all in his head, as he was being released into the halfway house, which explains the coffee cart. It also explains the lack of Internet and why Will is writing his novel by hand, it's just that, haha, the movie is so stupid in an overall way you just assumed all that stuff was carelessness. By the way, from now through the end of the film, you can easily discern which mental state Will/Peter is in simply by looking at his hairstyle. It's part of the classic cinematic trope known as Hairstyle As Characterization.

So the only real surprise is that Will suddenly ACCEPTS that he is Peter Ward. So... I guess he has psychotically denied all evidence up til now, but suddenly, something got through. He goes back home, and finds the house is all boarded up and empty. So this is why the people across the street have been staring at him, because all of a sudden the killer is coming back and hanging out in his abandoned house. There, he starts to once again see Libby and the girls, and talk to them, and try to convince them that they are dead(?) and there's an emotional scene in which the girls die of gunshot wounds (watch the poor child actresses have to do their best to pretend they're dying around 57:00) and we're supposed to getting wrapped up in all this emotion, but... all of these people are imaginary. How exactly am I supposed to get involved in the emotions of characters that don't actually exist?

Peter (that's also Will) goes across the street to visit Ann and her daughter and finds them both quite welcoming. In fact, Ann draws a bath for Peter and lets him soak in it while she runs an errand, all of which might leave you a bit "Huh?" Ann's ex-husband drops by and makes clear that doesn't like Peter one bit. Did Peter and Ann have an affair? Is that what led to the breakup of Ann's marriage? The movie pretty much tells us no, but everything seems like yes. By the way, all of the creepy special effects sequences that you saw in the trailer, making this film look like it might be an effects-packed spectacular, are just quick insert shots as Peter is dreaming. Eventually Peter utters the memorable line "I just have to find out who killed my family--even if it's ME!"

However, by now we've spent so much sympathetic time with Peter anyone who has seen a movie before will know that there's no way the film will go through with saying he did it. Kind of a suspense-buster. But get ready, because there's no waiting for explanations, ludicrous though they may be. Peter goes back to the house to have a chat with Dead Libby, who suddenly, conveniently remembers that Peter was outside when suddenly she saw Elias Koteas lurking on her stairwell! He shot them all, struggled with Peter, who was injured and left at the scene to take the rap. Koteas was hired for this job by Jack, Ann's husband, played by Martin Csokas of Aeon Flux fame. He's mad at Peter for breaking up his marriage, although if they didn't have an affair I have to say I'm at a loss as to what could have happened. But please don't write to explain: I don't care.

Well, guess who is in the REAL house at that very moment? Why, it's Koteas AND Jack. And Peter and Ann and the dead Libby. Jack shoots Koteas, and knocks out Peter and Ann. He ties them up and is going to torch the whole place, finishing the job once and for all. Then Libby, that's right, the one who doesn't exist, comes down and wakes Peter up. I was sitting there wondering if Libby was going to suddenly start being a real ghost, and actually save the day from behind the wall of the spirit world, but the movie stops just short of that. Peter wakes and gets Ann out of there, and Koteas is alive just enough to pour gasoline down the staircase so that Jack can't get out. Everything is resolved!

Everything, that is, except for the EMOTIONS. Peter runs back INTO to the burning house, and up the flaming staircase to have a final heart-to-heart with Dead Libby. This is one of those situations where the rapidly-disintegrating house suddenly goes on simmer long enough for Peter and Dead Libby to have a leisurely-paced goodbye and fully-realized emotional closure. You're sitting there as they make tearful, dewy-eyed expressions of wistful love and loss, going "Umm, I thought the house was burning down?" After the rapprochement, Peter makes it out just as a fireball explodes behind him. That's catharsis you could set your watch to!
< < < SPOILERS END

Once it ends, the biggest shock this movie has to offer follows soon after: This is directed by Jim Sheridan! Yes, Jim Sheridan of My Left Foot and In the Name of the Father. This disc, as noted, does not have any extras, but DOES include trailers for eight films from The Unborn to My Soul To Take and The Strangers, which all to easily could have appeared under the tagline "If you love shitty horror..."

Okay, this just in: Apparently the producer and Director Sheridan fought the whole time, and finally the film was taken away from Sheridan and re-edited by the studio. They released the trailer which gave the whole thing away. Because of this, Sheridan, Craig, and Weisz refused to do publicity for the film. Craig and Weisz met on this film, and are now married. Nevertheless, the film, as released, still sucks ass.

It's hard to say where this went so wrong, but I guess the problems began in its conception. I guess it could have been pulled off if handled extremely delicately, although there are so many barriers to getting involved with it--characters that do not exist, protagonists who may be mass murderers, ill-defined relationships--it seems they should have been apparent up front. There's just not enough that makes sense. It's one thing to keep an audience on their toes and off-kilter, but it's a delicate balance between that and having no idea what's going on, to the extent that one just shuts down and stops caring.

Another huge factor in this movie falling flat is that the main twist it has to offer is given away in the trailer. It's hard to know how well it might have succeeded if one hasn't been exposed to that. As a result, you sit through the first half just waiting for the characters to discover what you already know, then, once they do, you wait to see what more the film has up its sleeve, which turns out to be nothing.

Really the only reason to watch this is if you, like my friend, have a taste for movies that are just bad at the conceptual level, and get some sick enjoyment out of watching quality actors go through the motions of something they seem not to understand is misguided at its very core. And that would seem to be the rare few.

Should you watch it: 

Not really.

Comments

I mean, I guess it must, but by the end the experience is the same anyway, ha ha. Dull as this was it was ironically really interesting to have watched it cold, having no idea that it came within a hair's breadth of being an Alan Smithee film. I'd totally watch a movie like this on purpose, but in this case just fished it out of a Best Buy bargain bucket, was suitably impressed by the credits and sat down having no idea what I was in for. Now I know what it's like to feel the growing puzzlement and unease of realizing something went very wrong during production, so that's something.

Anyway, no, it didn't help much. During the first act you can't quite get the hang of what's going on, which would be great if it contributed to an atmosphere of menace or something, but instead it just seems like more symptoms of something being off with the movie itself. The twist comes, and it's Standard Twist #3 but you think now the movie is going to jump into focus; instead it REALLY starts visibly struggling and heaving just to put down the appropriate plot points on time and in order, the way Alan Smithee films do. (You know that feeling, where it's like the movie is explaining what the story is instead of actually enacting that story, and it's having a hard time even doing that?)

It's been a while, but I remember nothing so clearly as the total bafflement about what in the hell Naomi Watts' character is even doing here. Her ex-husband turns out to be the reason Craig's family is dead,* and he shows up again to provide the climax...but as far as it goes for her, she literally is just a person who exists and is sometimes in the same room as the movie. It doesn't play like she had a juicy role that got cut down, it plays like there's no role at all. Her purpose in the plot could have just been done with a line of dialogue establishing that the dude had an ex-wife. Bizarre.

*You don't care and I didn't remember, but according to the IMDb synopsis the big reveal is that he hired the hitman to kill his ex-wife, but the guy went to the wrong house and shot Craig's family to death instead. Oops!