In Dreams

Thankless role
★★
☆☆☆☆☆
Released: 
1999
Director: 
Neil Jordan
Starring: 
Annette Bening, Robert Downey, Jr., Aidain Quinn, Stephen Rea
The Setup: 
Serial killer contacts a psychic woman through her dreams.
Discussion: 

I remember seeing this one in the theater. You had Neil Jordan, coming off of The Crying Game, Interview With the Vampire and The Butcher Boy, so now that he's going to direct a serial killer movie with a spooky psychic element = AWESOME! What followed was that familiar bad / bewildering movie feeling where you’re pretty forgiving at first, then there are elements that just are not working, but maybe they’ll all come together by the end, then you near the conclusion and you’re pretty sure it’s a total stinker but you hold out hope that MAYBE somehow it’s all going to whip together in the last second… then the credits come on and the crashing realization hits that what you just witnessed was a rancid turd bomb launched straight at your eyeballs. A friend of mine liked this, and come on, it IS Neil Jordan, who is not a stupid person, so maybe there was some idea I missed? Maybe some whole thread of goodness I was blind to? Well, no, second time it’s actually worse, because it’s impossible to maintain the kind of first-viewing hope I described above. Although this does allow you to lay back and enjoy poor Annette Bening’s 10X over-the-top performance a smidge more.

But first, a quiz: How would you rate your chances of hearing Roy Orbison sing “In Dreams” over the title credits?

So we open with two divers exploring this underwater town, with a title informing us that in 1965 this town was evacuated and flooded to create this reservoir. During the credits here we find out that this is adapted from a novel, but apparently the novel only bears the slightest similarity to what’s here, and in the “production notes” on the disc, Jordan and his screenwriter talk about thinking up the story, which indicates that maybe the novel either gave them the kernel of an idea or they found out later that there’s a novel with the same premise as their film. Anyway, Annette as Claire and her beautiful blonde daughter Rebecca are out by the reservoir for no other reason than to tie them into the opening dive sequence. Absentee airline pilot dad Aidan Quinn as Paul arrives, greeted first thing by tales of how Claire has been having disturbing dreams in which she sees a hand leading a young girl through the woods with a bunch of apples on the ground. Turns out Claire is Clairvoyant [get it???] and has had these kind of disturbing visions before, and Paul is pretty much fed up to here with them. We can see that their marriage is strained, and that comes to the fore as Claire finds and then confronts Paul over a letter from an Australian stewardess, as well as the fact that he’s never home, and he hits back that he wouldn’t have to flirt with Australian stewardesses if she were mentally present when he was there, but she’s always wrapped up in whatever series of visions she’s having now and whatever obsession she’s onto then. They make up, but later Claire has a vision right in the middle of sex and bites Paul’s lip until it spews blood. She claims she can’t help having her visions and obviously now they can even come when she’s awake. Nevertheless: Marriage trouble.

So we now have the most art-directed and expensive children’s play performance of all time, in which like a half-mile of forest is strung up with atmospheric paper lanterns. The play they’re doing is Snow White, in which apples figure prominently. Anyway, there’s the play, during which Claire is moved to stand with joy at Rebecca’s successful delivery of her line [making me want another parent to shout out at her: “Sit the fuck down!”]. Then it’s over and Paul has to go. He kisses Rebecca goodbye and Claire goes off to say goodbye to him and tell him she’s sorry they’re having marital problems and when he comes back, she’ll screw him for sure, without any mid-coital mental breakdowns. Well, I hope he doesn’t save anything up for her in that department, because there’s going to be a whole new trauma when he gets back.

When Claire goes back to the party—no Rebecca. We then tick off the rote “disturbing” clichés: groups of children shrieking with disturbing laughter, groups of jumping children keeping Claire from searching for Rebecca, the girl who looks like her from the back but isn’t her—with bonus points for that kid having a disturbing expression. This is the first of many sequences in which Bening is asked to go BATSHIT CRAZY. The Surgeon General strongly advises against developing drinking games around taking a shot every time Bening goes BATSHIT CRAZY here, because you will pass into unconsciousness long before the film is over. There is a good edit where Claire goes from running around the party, screeching like a banshee, to suddenly the woods full of police with flashlights, as Claire runs around, screaming like a banshee. I swear poor Bening took ten years off her neck veins during the shooting of this film. She edges the agony level up from 13 to 14 when they find the angel wings Claire made for Rebecca’s costume stuck in some bushes. She wails something along the lines of “Why didn’t you tell me the dreams were of the future?” [remember she dreamed of a little girl being led off through the woods with a bunch of apples around?]. But you’re like: Who is this ‘you?’ Is there some sort of Psychic Governing Authority [PGA] that decrees the rules and regulations of psychic visions? And you can like sue them or something if they send you a vision from the future that is not clearly labeled as such?

SPOILERS > > >
The next day more agony is on tap as they find Rebecca’s dead body on main street in the submerged town. There is a good moment as Claire sees some commotion across the way and just KNOWS what the story is. You only get to enjoy it for a second, however, before Bening FREAKS again, gets in her red convertible and starts high-tailing it around the lake, pursued by the attending cop, which might cause you to have a little moment of “How did we suddenly get into a high-speed car chase?” But you have to admit it’s a bit of surprise to have the adorable blonde daughter killed off so soon. Anyway, before you know it, Claire is driving off a bridge! I must admit I had a moment of “What? She’s going to DRIVE down to see the body?” but no, she’s actually trying to kill herself. While she’s sinking she has a vision [at this point nary a full 60 seconds goes by without some kind of vision] where she sees a boy tied to a bed in a room filling up with water. Hmmm, where could that be? If you have a clue, you’re ten miles ahead of everyone else in this movie.

Claire wakes up six weeks later. She had been in a coma. While she was out, she’s been given a chic, spiky new haircut! I find that people in movies often make bold fashion advances while comatose. I should compile a little list. Maybe that could be a reality series, about a group of people who give style makeovers to those in comas [“Blink once if you like your new look!”]. No word on what her poor husband was doing during all that time, but I hope he let love blossom with the Australian stewardess. Anyway, Claire wakes up, goes home, and—I made a mistake, NOW is when she bites her husband’s lip which they’re scrumping. She has a vision, while awake, then wails “He’s IN MY HEAD!” When Paul asks her to tell him what’s going on, she says “I can’t talk about it!” Yeah, so this marriage has some issues.

Now comes the best of all the freak-outs, and one the movie has a hard time topping. It also may be the moment in which any thought of taking this movie seriously goes entirely out the window. First Claire is seen sitting there smoking bitchily with her glasses on, bidding a cool adieu to her husband, who is going away traveling again. But she’ll be okay—she’s going to get some work done! [she apparently writes and illustrates children’s books.] What this “work” consists of is making a screen saver that obsessively duplicates apples until it fills up the screen. Is this really the best thing to do when you already know your mind is playing tricks on you and you know you are unhealthily obsessed over apples? I’m just asking. Then she hears their vanished dog outside and when she goes out, finds an apple on the still-moving swing and a boom box that either has a remote control or that the killer can switch on telepathically. It plays “Don’t Sit Under the Apple Tree With Anyone Else But Me,” a song we hear so repeatedly throughout we are clearly meant to consider it to be quite eerie and haunting. Claire then wanders in the woods where she meets a red herring, then comes back in and has the FREAK-OUT OF FREAK-OUTS. You see, it would seem that Claire, who as mentioned is knowingly teetering on the brink of sanity, apparently has filled her whole kitchen with approximately 500 apples! Seriously—they are mounded all over the counters, and this is THE moment where the film dies, because Claire walks in and just starts throwing them all in the disposal, and you have the jarring moment where the ONLY thing you can assume is that she went out and bought them all, presumably between when her husband left and when she was working upstairs, and piled them on the counter. For… some… reason. Or maybe we’re in her fantasy world? But Jordan has always explicitly signaled her entrance into fantasy and those have always been visions of somewhere else. Maybe the killer broke in and put them all there? This seems logical—movie serial killers do seem to be able to do such superhuman and bizarre things to taunt their victims—except that Claire didn’t react to them at all upon entering the kitchen. My guess is that there was something that explained this in an earlier incarnation of the film that got edited out when they realized that this movie is a disaster and started chopping at it, but it creates SUCH viewer dislocation it really throws one entirely out of the movie, and there’s just no real way back in.

But wait—Claire isn’t done freaking out! Except that now, given the distance that last scene caused, her freakouts are now camp classics and all hope of taking them seriously is long gone. She becomes SUPER fun now in that when something doesn’t go her way, she doesn’t just get annoyed or start crying—she grabs a large object and SMASHES it! So first someone calls and Claire answers with a psychotic “LEAVE ME ALONE!” and… I’m not sure we ever find out who it was. Then her computer is displaying everything she’s saying on the screen—which indicates that the killer has either bugged her room and created an elaborate internet hook-up while she wasn’t looking—or we’re in her psychotic fantasy, which there has been no indication of. So she does the sensible thing, picks up the computer and heaves it through the front window! God, why couldn’t this woman have been my mom? Lasting psychological damage, sure, but imagine the golden memories!

Next thing you know, Claire’s in a hospital, having slashed her wrists in order to stop the visions that torment her! Then we see her lost dog at the window, then she escapes from the hospital, which involves her climbing out her window and down about 20 feet—which implies that the dog was, what, hovering? Outside the window? Maybe it has a magic carpet? I’m ready to accept anything at this point. Then Claire goes running through the woods after the dog, sees it in the middle of the road, runs out after it—and ends up causing a massive 25-car pileup! But it’s okay that she caused several serious injuries and quite possibly multiple fatalities with her antics, because she was like REALLY upset, okay? God, this woman really is trouble to have around. Lock away the good china! Anyway, finally she’s gone far enough and her husband signs off on tossing her in the looney bin.

So Claire, never one to go a full three minutes without having some kind of vision, has a black-and-white one in which she is in a RED dress and wanders into this cool deserted hotel, then goes upstairs and finds her lost dog—eating her dead husband’s face! She then wakes in a padded room, and does what she’s best at—totally freaks out! But by this time you are privately making out a sympathy card to send to Annette Bening [“Sorry about your thankless role”] and thinking “Fucking Christ! Can we maybe have ONE scene in which she’s not fucking screeching in agony?” Stephen Rea as doctor whoever comes by and gently condescends to her, not so much as making the one phone call that might save her husband, who is, that very moment, going to the very room in the very hotel that Claire saw in her vision, and getting killed. Anyway, before it’s all over, Claire physically attacks the good doctor, which I mention only because…

Next time we see her, she’s in a normal room with a roommate, and no lock on the door. Oh I see, so she proves herself to be a physical danger to staff, so naturally they take her OUT of the padded room and put her in one considerably less secure. It all makes sense. Around now you’re ready to see ANYTHING in this movie—the Buddha could appear in a leopard-print leotard singing Justin Beiber songs, and it would make about as much sense as anything else—but it’s also beginning to be overwhelmed by a feeling of “Will this shit just FUCKING END?” By the way, one additional annoyance is that Claire is continually mentioning her visions of a submerged town, and yet NO ONE, least of all her, connects it at all with the submerged town that EVERYONE IN THE VICINITY KNOWS IS AT THE BOTTOM OF THE LOCAL RESERVOIR.

So it turns out that Claire just so HAPPENS to be in the exact same room the killer stayed in when he was but a small psychotic child—WHAT a coinkidink!—and she starts ripping off the wallpaper to reveal the insane scrawl beneath. The she goes to sleep—having some vision, of course—then wakes to find someone in a nurse outfit climbing into the heating duct above her. Hey, whatever, man. Bring on the dancing hippos next.

Turns out this is a daring and ambitious narrative gambit—especially given that it’s only clear what is going on as the sequence is winding up. So you see this young nurse crawling through the heating ducts. Claire follows her. The nurse comes out of the ducts and kills a guy. Then Claire comes out in the same room. Then the nurse escapes, then Claire gets out the same way. Then the nurse picks up the nearest horny guy, and Claire picks up the nearest horny guy. For a while you might think that the nurse IS Claire, that is, in her mind, and is this projection of her mind showing her how to escape. But no, it is actually flashbacks to the killer escaping, many years ago, as a boy in drag. Yeah. Then Claire drives off somewhere, parks it, and the killer approaches her, asking if she wants to hang for a while.

Now that last part has been written for MONTHS, and the notes for this movie hve stayed in my messenger bag that whole time, going back and forth to work with me every day, for all that time, and every day I see them and think “Oh that’s right, I have to finish that review,” and it’s only today I found it and looked at where I was. I started this review in late 2010 and am now finishing it in late March 2011. This epic review was MONTHS IN THE MAKING! And you would not believe how much frankly idiotic stuff we STILL have left to go!

So Claire stops somewhere and soon Robert Downey Jr. is at her side. They found each other through psychic global positioning. He takes her to this old run down CIDER MILL, which is why she was seeing all those apples! Boy, too bad Claire’s too busy smashing everything in sight and throwing massive hysterical fits, or she might have thought of that. Her daughter is there--no wait, her daughter is dead. Some other girl? I watched this so long ago--and Downey, who can be said to have some rather severe psychosexual issus, wants them to be some fucked-up family. He’s actually quite abusive and torturing to Claire when she varies even a tiny bit from this plan, and it’s really rather unpleasant to watch. You might also have cause to ask yourself--if this is the old abandoned cider mill, why isn’t each and every one of those apples rotten by now?

So Claire pretends to be Downey’s mom, and escapes with the girl, and ends up--where else?--but the bottom of the reservoir, where she [I said SPOILER, way back when, recall] DIES! She is greeted by her daughter and welcomed into the spirit world with a lovely gift basket full of scented soaps and a loofah, plus a book full of coupons worth $25 in savings at local merchants. Okay, I’ll give this movie back 7 points [out of a possible 7,986,564] for killing off its heroine.

And now the ending which I’m going to speculate is tacked on because test audiences said a loud and collective WTF, but be clear that I have no evidence for this. Downey is sent to a mental institution, where he seems happy as a clam [if, indeed, clams are happy] and it soon becomes clear that Claire, who is now a vengeful spirit, is going to haunt the living fuck out of him and cause all sorts of bedsores and ingrown hairs. Not to mention stale air. That guy’s really in for a hard time. Now remember when asked you if you thought you might be treated to an “ironic” playing of Roy Orbison’s “In Dreams?”
< < < SPOILERS END

Truly, the pain is unendurable. There is a kind of bad movie that results from the director being too dumb, but there are also bad movies that result from the director being too smart, and thinking the audience will follow them over certain gaps and will forgive certain lapses. This seems like one of the latter--Jordan clearly had an idea, but it just went wrong and kept getting more and more off. I recall sitting there in the theater, coming in super excited to see what Jordan would do with a serial killer movie, and following that familiar arc from “This just isn’t developing any momentum” through “This is really not working” to “Oh God, what a total misfire.” Only this one goes one step further and adds: “What the FUCK?! No seriously, WHAT THE FUCKING-FUCK?!?!?!?”

The ideal conditions to watch this movie would be as a young film student on drugs and in the company of your classmates, late at night, where you have the filmmaking knowledge and structural understanding necessary to really appreciate what a total piece of psychotic garbage we are witnessing here. Others--watch at your peril, but I think only a wish to mock and degrade is an acceptable reason. Sure, there are awful movies of every available description, but this one really takes the cake just for finding new and equally appalling ways to go over the top in terms of horrificness every few minutes.

Special mention must again be made of poor, poor Annette Bening and the abuse heaped upon her during the making of this film. She gets the Tippi Hedren filmmaking abuse prize. The woman probably aged her face 25 years during the making of this, and she should try to recoup some of the loss by releasing a coffee table book of stills entitled “1,001 Expressions of Agony.” Annie Lennox would buy a copy. Other than that--my God, all these months later, and the pain is still fresh.

Oh--and grad film students on drugs? Don’t forget to check out the commentary to glean additional chuckles from people trying to pretend that this is GOOD in some small, redeeming way.

Should you watch it: 

For God’s Sake, SAVE YOURSELVES!