Interviewed for the book Smoking in Bed – Conversations with Bruce Robinson, the director/writer/actor observes that the first thing Neil Jordan did in the film of In Dreams was to have a child killed. Robinson’s original script had studiously avoided showing kids in peril, and he understandably felt that Jordan had completely missed the point. I’m not all together sure the film would have worked if it had followed Robinson’s vision, but it surely couldn’t have been any worse than beautifully shot mess that ends up on screen.
Robinson the writer had answered the call of none of other than Steven Spielberg who, no doubt in a moment of reverie, had the bright idea of making a film about a serial killer who preys on children. Whether the ‘berg ever intended to direct is moot; he probably believed he would for five minutes one afternoon, until something else grabbed his attention. And I expect his concept flowed from idle spitballing of what could outdo Se7en in the serial killer stakes. Robinson was less than enamoured with the brief, but he readily accepted it because you don’t often get personal requests from Hollywood royalty. From the interview, it sounds as if Robinson did everything he could to turn a concept he found unpalatable into one he was vaguely comfortable working up; on that basis alone it sounds as if his original would have been pulling in different directions.
For some reason, Jordan accepted the reins and undertook a rewrite. Robinson readily acknowledges Jordan’s talent as a director, and rightly so. But he’s also correct to opine that his work on In Dreams is a complete mess. Well, it’s technically fine. The cinematography from Darius Khondji (who, of course, lensed Se7en, and also made a big splash with his work for Jeunet and Caro) is gorgeous and memorable; in particular the underwater sequences depicting a submerged town are eerie and evocative, as is Bening framed in the window of her cell. But, while individual sequences make visual sense, the film has been edited to the point of narrative incoherence. As a whole, it is delivers the same level of relentless, garbled hysteria as Annette Bening’s reluctant psychic.
Even if one was to look charitably on the result as some kind of unnerving fever dream on the part of Bening’s character (Claire Cooper), it needs to be compelling on some level to sustain itself. In premise, there is some potential; a mother is subject to visions of a serial killer who abducts children. After her daughter is also abducted and murdered, and the dreams escalate, she is committed to a mental institution. Robinson commented that, in his script, the death of her daughter was not at the hands of the serial killer; he saw this as adding weight to the authorities’ view that she was delusional.
Jordan’s film begins in a state of extreme agitation and becomes only more so as it progresses. Bening is a fine actress, but there’s no in- to sympathising with her. She is OTT from start. By the point at which she is freaking out in her kitchen, blocking the sink with the multitude of apples she has to hand, the director has clearly lost all grip on the story. When the sink explodes in a great crimson splatter, any hope at staving off ridicule is well and truly lost. Claire’s breakdown should be supremely affecting. Instead it is so one-note it becomes laughable. Everything is an extreme hallucination, and her dialogue is often terrible (“Can’t you get that through your thick psychiatric skull?”)
And the overall tone is distasteful, without compensating purpose or direction. Silly events pile upon each other without meaning, a succession of well-crafted images of dubious merit. Claire, ever manic, is involved in a freeway pile up as she pursues her dog. It’s silly. She discovers the killer’s writing behind the wallpaper in her ward; it’s the kind of antic coincidence that bursts any fragile credulity that was remaining. And the final twist is so obviously based on a notional “horror movie” rulebook, as it makes a mockery of Claire’s character motivations and, indeed, what we had just seen of her journey’s resolution.
If Bening is ineffectively shrill, the rest of the cast fares little better. Aidan Quinn was yet to resign himself to a TV career, and is rewarded with a thankless husband role. Jordan regular Stephen Rea is forgettable as a shrink, while Robert Downey Jr.’s psycho performance is a rare misfire from the actor. To be fair to him, he has nothing to work with so all he can do is go “large”.
Robinson’s reaction to being informed he was inspired by a book was “Oh, really? I’ve never heard of it” (Doll’s Eyes by Bari Wood; Wood also wrote Twins, which David Cronenberg made as Dead Ringers), so when In Dreams is referred to as a loose adaptation, that would be why. Anyone interested in In Dreams based on the pedigree of its writer and director should be forewarned. The only good reason to give it your time is the quality of Khondji’s photography.