In Dreams (1998)
Directed by Neil Jordan
Cast: Annette Bening, Aidan Quinn, Robert Downey Jr., Stephen Rea, Paul Guilfoyle, Katie Sagona, Margo Martindale.
1998 103 minutes
Rated: (for violence, profanity, and sexual situations).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman, January 20, 1999.
Every great once in a while, a mainstream, big-budget studio picture will come along and miraculously restore your faith in Hollywood, due to its ingeniously fresh ideas and the courage to not stick with the practicalities of any certain genre. After viewing the mind-numbing "Virus," I immediately saw "In Dreams," directed by Neil Jordan (1992's "The Crying Game" and 1994's "Interview With the Vampire"), which is one of the most consistently disturbing, surprising, and visually beautiful motion pictures I have seen this decade.
In the eerily gorgeous opening sequence, we are informed that in the '60s the town of Northfield was completely flooded out to make way for a reservoir as we are shown the now 30-year-old ghost town that a group of forensic investigators are exploring underwater. Soon afterwards, we discover that they are searching for a little girl who was recently abducted by a serial killer. We then meet Claire Cooper (Annette Bening), a generally satisfied woman living in New England with her husband (Aidan Quinn), who flies 747s for a living, and young daughter, Rebecca (Katie Sagona), who is anxiously preparing for her school play of "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs." For a long time, Claire has been having a recurring dream about the missing girl, whom she sees in an apple orchard being led away by a person with red hair. She has reason to believe that she may, actually, hold the key to the child's disappearance until the murdered body of the girl is found nowhere near an apple orchard. Since "In Dreams" is so completely unpredictable and pleasing from beginning to end, I will have to tread carefully concerning what happens next so as not to give away any important plot points. Ultimately, a tragedy occurs involving Claire, and as she gradually becomes more and more haunted by the killer whom she thinks has found a way into her brain, and her dreams, which do hold the answers to what will happen in the future, the people around her, including her psychiatrist (Stephen Rea), start to believe that she is going out of her mind.
Like slasher films, the tried-and-true "serial killer" movie has been done to death in the last two decades, but it took a marvelous film like "In Dreams" to wondrously rejuvenate new life into the well-worn genre. So entirely imaginative and original this film is, I almost wasn't sure how to react while watching it. For a person who sees most every film that is released, whether it be in the theater or on video, it is easy for their senses to be deadened with all of the recycled junk that is made these days, but "In Dreams" is the complete polar opposite, with enough ingenuity and inventiveness for five movies. Not only that, but the film is one of the few I have seen in many years that I could actually say is frightening.
The cast in "In Dreams" is uniformly great, particularly Annette Bening, who is able to gain our outright sympathy despite her inevitable demise into madness. Bening has sparkled before, most notably in 1995's "The American President," but this is a new kind of role for her and she may very well give her best performance to date here. When Robert Downey Jr. finally shows up late in the picture, he comes off as one of the most believably menacing villains in memory with his almost "dead," monotone speech pattern and ill temper, to say the least.
It may only be the third week in January but I can already firmly state that there will not be a superior example of cinematography all year. Seldom before has a director of photography shown me such unforgettable and devastatingly ominous images as Darius Khonji ("Seven," "The City of Lost Children") does in this film. Every single representation is brought to glorious light, and some of the best examples would be the apple orchard; the underwater ghost town; the school play; and the Carlton Hotel. I could easily go on and on, going into great depth about these marvelous sights, and others, but I do not want to spoil the experience by giving away the smallest detail. For the whole 103-minute running time of "In Dreams," I was in a state of awe at everything I was seeing onscreen, and then utterly shocked by how little I could predict of what was going to happen. One particularly brilliant and intricately constructed sequence involves the same thing occurring to two different people in two different time periods, with the stories being seamlessly intercut with each other.
It is not too often that a film is released that actually has so many wonderful ideas, and it is an even rarer occurrence that these ideas are actually carried through all the way to the end. There are simply too many films to count that have gotten my hopes up, only to crush them during the conclusion, but "In Dreams" only got better, with a climax that I could never have foretold but that left me with a satisfied and unsettled feeling. For once, here is a film that does not condescend to its audience in any way, nor does it try to sugarcoat the dark subject matter, and as far as director Neil Jordan goes, this is his most accomplished piece of work yet. Almost always a film, at the least, does not live up to its trailer, which usually makes a picture look better than it actually is, but "In Dreams" also lived up to this great challenge. On its opening weekend, I was saddened to see that "In Dreams" only made about $4.6 million, and was well behind such Hollywood "flukes" as "Varsity Blues," "Patch Adams," and "Virus," since this film is infinitely more intelligent and creative than all of those films combined. "In Dreams" is a nightmarish, extraordinarily harrowing experience, and although only January, it is sure to remain one of the year's best films.
©1999 by Dustin Putman