movie review by
Gary Johnson

In Dreams

 

(©1998 DreamWorks LLC. All rights reserved.)

During its first hour, In Dreams sucks us into the story of Claire Cooper, a children's book illustrator who begins having deeply disturbing visions of a serial killer. While setting up the situation, director/writer Neil Jordan (of The Crying Game) provides astonishing visuals that depict a woman's fall into madness. His camera drifts through the empty, submerged streets of a small town, now at the bottom of a reservoir, and provides dreamy, evocative images. In other scenes, as his camera prowls the decaying hallways of an abandoned cider mill and lingers with funereal elegance over rotting mounds of apples, he even manages to recall the work of the great Italian horror director Mario Bava. However, when it's time for the killer to make his big appearance, this movie retreats to utterly conventional terrain and becomes just another psycho murderer thriller, not much different from any other slasher movie, except in its reluctance to show spilled blood.

Annette Bening plays Claire Cooper and she delivers a magnificent performance. Her performance is so good that (for its first hour, anyway) the movie feels like a psychological study. We see Claire become deeply shaken by visions that she cannot control. The visions hit her at the most inopportune times, especially when her husband begins to kiss and caress her shoulders and neck. Suddenly, liquid images surge through her brain and coalesce into shadowy, incomplete visions of a man leading a child through an orchard. Claire knows that the man is a serial killer responsible for the deaths of several children, but she doesn't know whether (or when or where) her visions will come true: "I need an interpreter for whatever the hell I dream," she says.

But then Robert Downey Jr. shows up as the killer, babbling like an idiot, as if Norman Bates were his acting coach. To be fair, Downey isn't given much of a character to work with. His character is given a pat childhood background, but he's given nothing to work with in the present. As a result, Downey flits through his scenes, with about as much substance as a ghost. Almost any serial killer on Fox's The X-Files or Millennium is more convincing and compelling. Until Downey appears, In Dreams is a genuinely disturbing movie, a near cousin of Silence of the Lambs, but whereas Hannibal Lector's quiet, controlled vehemence could send shivers up your spine, Robert Downey's serial killer looks like one of the loonies in a Monty Python skit.

The real star of In Dreams is director Neil Jordan. With cinematographer Darius Khondji (of Seven and Alien Resurrection), Jordan creates a mesmerizing maze of images--flood waters surge through stained glass windows; fairies leap, dance, and laugh in a forest glen; and Claire strides through the hallways of a decrepit hotel, dressed in a flowing blood-red gown. Jordan and Khondji have crafted a mystical and hypnotic journey that feels like a walk on the thin ice of a frozen lake. But the screenplay by Jordan and Bruce Robinson (based on Doll's Eyes by Bari Wood) is infuriatingly incomplete. Even the main plot device--Claire's visions--has been used by other movies, such as Eyes of Laura Mars. For the movie's first hour, the well-worn material is redeemed by the performances and the cinematography, but without a compelling villain--a villain who can compete with the overwhelming power of the movie's visuals--the movie sputters and stalls when it tries to shift into overdrive.


[rating: 2 of 4 stars]