By Michael Gray
In the real world, a handsome airline pilot and his attractive wife, a children’s book illustrator, living in a picturesque clapboard house by a lake with their darling daughter, might expect to live out their days free from trauma and crime. But if they live in the world of movies, they’re just begging for butchery at the hands of a deranged serial killer.
Hollywood loves to punish the suburban idyll, and does it one more time in Neil Jordan’s new film, "In Dreams." This foray into the horror genre takes Jordan a long way from the familiar Irish terrain of "The Butcher Boy" and "Michael Collins" to leafy New England, where pilot Paul Cooper (Aidan Quinn) and his wife Claire (Annette Bening) find their pleasant lifestyle troubled by her recurring nightmares about a missing local girl.
The manhunt for the girl extends to the reservoir near the Coopers’ house, where divers search the lake bed for her body among ghostly flooded villages. The villages had been abandoned decades earlier when a dam was built, flooding the valley, and images of the rising floodwater start to permeate Claire’s dreams.
The persistence of these dreams makes Claire hysterical, and soon drives her husband from sympathy to annoyance. To calm her down, he goes to the police and reports the details of her disturbing visions to a detective (Paul Guilfoyle) to help them in finding the girl. The detective gives him short shrift, and tells him that the missing girl has been found dead in a storm drain.
Soon after, the Coopers are devastated when their own daughter Rebecca disappears at a school play. When Rebecca’s body is found in the nearby lake, the distraught Claire tries to take her own life by drowning. She survives, but is traumatized and committed to psychiatric care, under the supervision of Dr. Silverman (Stephen Rea, in his seventh Jordan film).
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Her nightmares continue, with recurring images of a child chained to a bed as floodwater rises to the ceiling of the bedroom. Silverman attributes her dreams to her state of suspended bereavement for her dead daughter, but Claire has come to believe that she has a psychic connection with the child killer. Her dreams are premonitions of his future crimes, and she realizes she’s the only one who can stop him killing more innocent victims. She knows she has to risk her own life in a showdown with the murderer to save the life of his latest captive, despite her sedation and confinement in a mental hospital.
"In Dreams" continues Jordan’s fascination with monstrous behavior in ordinary places. It’s not a new idea to make a film about a killer putting the psychic frights on his victims in their dreams; Wes Craven flogged that theme to death in his "Nightmare On Elm Street" series, and the TV movie "Night Visions" from the same director featured a woman who used her paranormal connection to a killer to help police track him down.
But Jordan tackles the subject matter with a good deal more subtlety than we normally find in the horror genre, and earns his frissons and visceral shocks without excess splatter.
The film glides through the parallel worlds of sinister dreamscape and underwater ghost towns with a lot of style, courtesy of cinematographer Darius Khondji, who fine-tuned his mastery of murk in France with "Delicatessen" and "City Of Lost Children." His camera work suffuses Jordan’s latest work with powerful images of submersion, drowning and claustrophobia, many of them shot in the same fourteen million gallon tank in Mexico that global monarch James Cameron used to float the Titanic three years ago.
But visual flourishes can’t compensate for a flawed storyline that keeps the killer (played with demented glee by Robert Downey Jr.) off-screen for three-quarters of the film, only appearing prior to the denouement in sinister cameo at the fringes of Claire’s dreams.
As is often the case, the baddie gets the best lines and is the most fun to watch, so viewers are short changed by the brevity of his screen-time.
And it seems less than credible that a fretful mother, already wound up about her child-abduction nightmares, would let her obnoxious little daughter out of her sight and into the hands of a maniac after a school play performed in the woods, of all places, in a town that had just been devastated by the murder of another child.
Her anxious husband Paul, omnipresent at the hospital as her mental condition deteriorates, and in constant contact with her shrink, disappears for ever after he goes out to fetch his dog, and nobody notices. This perforated plot is credited to Jordan and Bruce Robinson, but a screenwriter of Jordan’s calibre would have ironed out these bumps long before the cameras started rolling.
While the film features crisp dialogue, strong performances from Bening and Quinn, and Jordan trademarks like the warped use of old
pop tunes, it must be assumed that Robinson did most of the writing
while Jordan concentrated on the directing.
Even Jordan’s perennial choice Stephen Rea comes up short in his role as the psychiatrist who thinks Claire’s dreams are nothing more than the workings of an overwrought mind. He plays the part with jaded disinterest, and you half-expect him to sneak a glance at his watch and appointment book during his exchanges with Bening, to see how much session time is left and whether his next patient will be more interesting.
Rea and Jordan have done great work together in the past, but admirers of "The Butcher Boy" and "The Crying Game" will find "In Dreams" to be a stylish disappointment.