Saturday, October 18, 2014

Neglected Gem #64: In Dreams (1999)

In Dreams is sensuously creepy and compelling. Annette Bening plays Claire Cooper, an adaptor and illustrator of fairy tales, who suddenly finds her head filled with horrifying images she can neither prevent nor interpret, though she knows they’re linked up with the disappearance of a little girl. When the child’s body turns up, she realizes that she’s channeling a serial killer. And unlike the murderers whose crimes run like private movies in the brain of the character Antonio Banderas plays in Pedro Almodóvar’s Matador, this one is conscious of his psychic connection with Claire – his next target turns out to be her daughter, Rebecca. When she can’t stop Rebecca’s inevitable fate, Claire tries to kill herself in her car, but she survives and grows more and more removed from the people around her – her husband (Aidan Quinn), the detective (Paul Guilfoyle) in pursuit of the killer, the surgeon (Dennis Boutsikaris) and psychiatrist (Stephen Rea) who treat her – because they don’t believe her story. She becomes unmoored, stalked by a man who’s somehow managed to worm his way into her skull and is leaving her maddening hints about how he lost his own bearings and what he’s going to do next.

The director, Neil Jordan, wrote the script with Bruce Robinson (it’s based on Bari Wood’s novel Doll’s Eyes), and the plot creaks badly, especially in the last forty minutes, when the killer, up to now a shadowy half-presence, makes his way to the forefront of the movie. That he’s played by Robert Downey should help, but the role is so misconceived that even Downey can’t do much with it. But the movie transcends the dumbness of the narrative, because Jordan and his photographer, Darius Khondji, create extraordinary lyrical sequences that carry you along. The mysterious watery opening (which gets explained much later on), a flood set by human hands to make a reservoir, echoes when visions of Rebecca’s body being dragged out of seaweed-green water are the last thing Claire sees before crashing her car. Rebecca disappears after a school production of Snow White held outside, near some woods, and Jordan and Khondji give the production an enchanted look. (There’s even a white horse on hand.) When Claire rushes backstage to congratulate her, all she finds are Rebecca’s classmates, giggling and screaming, and a pair of fairy wings hung on the branch of a tree. From this scene through the attempted suicide, the movie has a hallucinatory feel and a disturbing, woebegone tone. Later there’s a scene where Claire’s dog whines for her beneath her bedroom window and she chases after it, onto the highway, so freaked out and so oblivious that she causes a pile-up. Jordan may not be able to control the narrative, but he’s completely in charge in these stinging, poetic waking-nightmare sequences. At its best, In Dreams is reminiscent of De Palma’s The Fury, with its operatic emotionalism and bravura thriller sequences stacked one on top of the other like a precarious, glittering tower you expect to tumble any minute. (Elliot Goldenthal’s eerie music is an effective component in Jordan’s mix.)

Aidan Quinn and Stephen Rea from In Dreams.

It’s a pity – almost an outrage – that Bening has never received the recognition she deserves for her edgy, daring performance. She has a remarkable moment when Claire, grilled by her shrink, is suddenly struck by the terrible black joke in his treating her as if she were schizophrenic when her real malady is so much worse, and she laughs in his face. When Claire finally meets up with Downey’s character and realizes she's to defeat him in order to save his latest child victim, Bening turns seductive and dreamy. Aidan acts feelingly as Claire’s husband Paul; it’s an underwritten part, but Jordan and Robinson have given him one terrific scene, where the killer cracks into her mind while she and Paul are making love and bites her on the lip, and she transfers the violent impulse to Paul. Quinn makes you understand the sorrowful alienation of this husband who knows he’s being locked out of his wife’s feelings. He assumes it’s mourning for their daughter that has somehow displaced him; he’s like the husband in the Robert Frost poem “Home Burial” (about what happens after the death of a child) who can only say, “I’m cursed. God, if I don’t believe I’m cursed.”

When Jordan made The Crying Game, his biggest critical success, I thought he was stuck in a groove. He seemed to have only one story – about the man who falls for a woman but finds there’s an insuperable obstacle between them: in Mona Lisa she wants another woman, in The Miracle she turns out to be his mother, in The Crying Game she’s really a guy. He’d worn this narrative strategy down to its nub, and he couldn’t seem to find anything to replace it; neither Interview with a Vampire nor Michael Collins, his subsequent pictures, seemed to mean much to him – they were impersonal (if sometimes beautiful) pieces. The strange distance between the Coopers in In Dreams, attributable to an agony Paul can neither penetrate nor comprehend, revives Jordan’s obsession, but he juices it up, conveying it with a conviction that was lacking in The Crying Game. Jordan shifts all the variables this time by moving the haunted woman to the centre of the movie in place of the exasperated rejected man.

Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting Style; No Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movie.

No comments:

Post a Comment