In Dreams (1999)

D: Neil Jordan
S: Annette Bening, Aidan Quinn

A slightly psychic woman (Annette Bening) shares dreams with a serial killer preying on children in New England. When her own daughter becomes a victim, she is driven over the edge, threatening her relationship with her pilot husband (Aidan Quinn) and bringing her into contact with sombre psychiatrist Stephen Rea. Like a contemporary Cassandra, her visions are of the future, but no one will believe her until it's too late, leading her to eventually decide to take action herself and try to find her spiritual tormentor.

Thematically and visually, In Dreams is a richly textured horror fantasy; a return to the surreal dreamscape of director Neil Jordan's intriguing early work The Company of Wolves (based on the work of Angela Carter). In common with all of his films, it evinces a strong sense of colour and a powerful ability to conjure up a unique atmosphere. In Dreams is overflowing with a sense of dread. It is a powerful, brooding insight into the haunted mindscape of its central character. It begins with an eerie vision of a town being flooded to make way for a reservoir, and consistently returns to images of water and underwater scenes which help to take the viewer into an otherworldly realm of (mis)perception which leaves you uncertain of where to turn. It is full of fascinating moments and suggestive, atmospheric set pieces which call to mind the best moments from Interview With the Vampire and even (though Jordan wouldn't thank me for mentioning it) High Spirits. There is a wealth of psychological and social commentary, from familiar themes of the male-female battleground of gender identity (with a sly gag at the expense of The Crying Game at one point) and the family, to a meditation on folk myth and fairytale. There are shades of Red Riding Hood and explicit referral to Snow White. Robert Downey Jnr. plays the killer (when he eventually appears) like one of Jordan's werewolves from The Company of Wolves (and indeed, he physically resembles some of them with is long hair and trenchcoat), waltzing through an orchard full of fulsome red apples whose psychological significance the viewer is never allowed to forget.

As narrative, In Dreams is an appalling mess; a poorly structured assemblage of plot pieces and character development which never amounts to a compelling story, but suggests that one is in there somewhere, or was at some point in its evolution. It develops awkwardly, with too much emphasis on its central character's oddness for its own good, which affects the film's ability to structure a story with interesting characters around its interesting scenes and moments. Like in Stanley Kubrick's film of The Shining, it is difficult to empathise with its protagonist, who goes off the rails so quickly that there is no time to get to know her, regardless of how vividly we get to see what she is experiencing. Bening is frequently hysterical and always intense, and though she does her best it is not really possible to think of her as a human being. She is a thematic element who fulfils a series of symbolic roles, and though Jordan tries to incorporate real-world concerns in the form of her relationship with Quinn (This is My Father), it is as a character in an adult fairytale that she really exists. The longer it runs, the less sense it makes on a real-world level, until it eventually becomes so preposterously unrealistic as human drama that all you have left is Bening's dementia, which is not enough to keep you with it. The climax is played out like a distant, ambiguous fable rather than a conventional thriller, which, while all well and good in itself, comes at the end of a film which has been less than clear throughout and is thus likely to only further alienate and infuriate casual viewers.

It is occasionally reminiscent of Bernard Rose's two-thirds wonderful Candyman, and plays on a hallucinogenic level as a deranged fantasy at least to a point. But the often asinine dialogue tends to bring it crashing down, a problem compounded by an uncharacteristically poor contribution from Stephen Rea, whose po-faced character mouths psychoanalytic mantras without ever offering insight or suggesting solutions, and a plethora of subsidiary characters who never move beyond stock types. One could excuse this as a side-effect of the film's aggressively subjective point of view, and claim it to be a Rosemary's Baby type questioning of the central character's skewed perception of reality. But In Dreams is never quite as gripping as it needs to be to get away with this type of gamesmanship, and there is a very real sense that Jordan has simply not controlled his material as well as we know he can.

This is a huge disappointment after The Butcher Boy, but the film is not without points of interest for those able to bear it. In Dreams is not a film anyone needs to see, but it is at least a serious attempt to articulate ideas in a horror/fantasy mode which is welcome in the age of Scream 2 and The Faculty.

Review by Harvey O'Brien copyright 1999.