In Dreams (1999)
Directed by Neil Jordan
Cast: Annette Bening, Aidan Quinn, Robert Downey Jr., Stephen Rea, Paul Guilfoyle, Katie Sagona, Margo Martindale.
1999 103 minutes
Rated: (for violence, profanity, and sexual situations).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman, January 20, 1999; Updated September 2013.
Every great once in a while, a mainstream, big-budget studio picture will come along and miraculously restore one's faith in Hollywood, its ingeniously fresh ideas and the courage to not stick with the practicalities of any certain genre attributes worth celebrating. One of the most consistently disturbing, surprising, visually beautiful motion pictures of the 1990s, Neil Jordan's "In Dreams" came and went in theaters in January of 1999, earning less than $12-million domestically. Even at this writing nearly fifteen years later, it is a criminally overlooked film, begging for a rebirth.
In the eerily gorgeous opening sequence, it is learned that the town of Northfield was completely flooded out in the 1960s to make way for a reservoir, the 30-year-old ghost town now but an underwater graveyard that a group of forensic investigators are exploring. Soon afterward, it is disclosed 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 pilot husband, Paul (Aidan Quinn), and young daughter, Rebecca (Katie Sagona), the child 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, it is important to tread carefully concerning what happens next. When a tragedy occurs in Claire's life, she gradually becomes more and more haunted by the killer. Though the people around her, including psychiatrist Dr. Silverman (Stephen Rea), believe she is going out of her mind, Claire is convinced the psychopath has found a way into her brain, her very dreams holding the crucial answers to what will happen in the future.
After 1991's "The Silence of the Lambs" took audiences by storm and won five Academy Awards in the process, a blitz of serial killer thrillers became the latest trend. Most, like 1997's "Kiss the Girls" and 1999's "The Bone Collector," were inferior, flimsily disguised knockoffs. A rare few, however, such as 1995's "Se7en" and the marvelous "In Dreams," served to wondrously rejuvenate the well-worn sub genre when it needed it most. So entirely imaginative and original is "In Dreams" that it is almost difficult to know how to react while watching it. For anyone who sees a lot of movies of every type, it is easy for one's senses to wilt with all of the recycled junk that Hollywood puts out. "In Dreams" is the complete polar opposite, filled with enough ingenuity and inventiveness for five movies. Not only that, it is authentically frightening.
The cast in "In Dreams" is uniformly great, particularly Annette Bening, able to gain our outright sympathy despite her inevitable demise into madness. Bening has sparkled before and since, but this remains one of her most challenging and emotionally demanding roles, to date. Before he became Tony Stark/Iron Man and rose to the A-list, Robert Downey Jr. was a hard-working character actor who didn't allow his personal struggles with drugs get in the way of his onscreen performances. When he finally shows up late in the picture, he comes off as one of the most believably menacing villains in memory.
Additionally of note, the cinematography is close to unsurpassed. Seldom before has a director of photography captured such unforgettable and devastatingly ominous images as Darius Khondji does in this film. Every single shot is brought to glorious light, with sequences set in the apple orchard, the underwater town, at the outdoor school play on the edge of the woods, and around the Carlton Hotel especially vivid in their realization. For the whole 100-minute running time of "In Dreams," the film places the viewer in a state of awe and rapture, slyly subverting any and all predictions one might have for where the narrative is leading. One particularly brilliant and intricately constructed sequence involves the same thing occurring to two different people in two different time periods, the stories seamlessly intercut while paralleling each other.
It is not too often a picture is released that actually has so many wonderful ideas, and it is an even more precious occurrence that these ideas are actually carried through all the way to the end. Too many cooks in the proverbial kitchen can screw up any feature film, but "In Dreams" miraculously escaped such a wrath, only getting better as it moves toward its unsettling climax. For once, here is a film that does not condescend to its audience in any way, nor does it try to sugarcoat dark themes touching upon fate and destiny, cognizance and mental illness. As far as director Neil Jordan goes, this nightmare-laden, extraordinarily harrowing thriller remains one of his most accomplished pieces of work, right up there next to 1992's "The Crying Game" and 1994's "Interview with the Vampire." It is certainly his most underrated.
©1999 by Dustin Putman