Neil Jordan’s In Dreams is a nuclear family nightmare— nakedly auteurist and not at all nice. It’s part possession-genre flick, part Grimm fairy tale, part Irish ghost story. No wonder DreamWorks has dumped it in the dead of winter. It’s as if Jordan had gone fishing with the kid in the sickly sweet DreamWorks logo and hooked something even scarier than a Great White.
Claire Cooper (Annette Bening) has a close relationship with her nine-year-old daughter. She has a husband (Aidan Quinn) who pilots 747s, which means that he’s not always there when she needs him. The family lives in a rustic New England house at the edge of a forest near a big lake. Claire is a children’s-book illustrator who suffers from terrifying dreams in which little girls are abducted and murdered. It may be that her drawings have caught the eye of a psychopathic child-murderer, or perhaps her drawings (and her dreams) are psychic projections from a killer who has taken possession of her unconscious. Whatever the explanation, when the killer strikes at Claire’s own flesh and blood, she goes over the edge. The doctors think she has had a psychotic breakdown, but there’s method in Claire’s madness. Only by surrendering to the killer with whom she’s in such intimate rapport can she destroy him and save the children. (“I must save the children,” whispers Deborah Kerr in The Innocents, Jack Clayton’s airtight adaptation of Henry James’s Turn of the Screw, a film that I suspect was much on Jordan’s mind.)
Adapted from Bari Woods’s pulp novel Doll’s Eyes, In Dreams could have been a streamlined horror film à la Nightmare on Elm Street, with a knife-wielding superhuman killer appearing on cue. There is a killer here (Robert Downey Jr.) and he brandishes a lethal-looking scythe, but he’s framed in a narrative that’s as fragmented and amorphous as a real nightmare when we try to take hold of it the next morning. That’s an ambitious structure, and the screenplay isn’t quite up to it. The film lacks a compelling character to act as an anchor. Claire is a bunch of bits and pieces with no center, her husband is no more than the sum of his absences, and the killer is too much a pastiche of damaged goods from other movies (he’s a double whammy of Norman Bates and the cross-dressing, breathy-voiced nutcase from Silence of the Lambs).
But if In Dreams isn’t as fully realized a film as The Butcher Boy, it has more than enough haunting moments, not to mention a complete catalogue of Jordan’s obsessions: blood-streaked walls; transvestism; scary, punitive mothers; tender, angelic mothers; and frighteningly fragile children on the edge of becoming predators or prey. Jordan has a rich and complicated vision of childhood. Claire’s daughter has one line in a class production of Snow White, a delirious extravaganza no school could afford. At one point, a hunter enters through the mist on a white horse. And yet the children have a sturdiness and spontaneity that can’t be imagined away. When Claire frantically searches the troupe of
diaphanous-winged fairies for her
missing daughter, it’s about as panic-
inducing a moment as you’ll ever experience in a movie theater.
In Darius Khondji, Jordan has a cinematographer who can bring his imaginings to light. The film opens with an extended silvery green underwater sequence that’s technically brilliant and provides the film with its basic metaphor. There’s a whole town under the water. It’s the world of the unconscious and of memory and if you go too deep and stay too long, you drown.
Khondji shot Seven, and he’s still carrying a bit of its baggage. (I could have done without the images of a decaying corpse in a dank, crumbling room.) Still, so much of Jordan’s method involves absorbing pop culture archetypes and pushing them over the top. Who else but Jordan would have the heroine and her psycho-killer alter ego slow-dance to the ’50s relic “Ebb Tide”? That takes guts.
Bening has some finely overwrought moments but she hasn’t a strong enough personality to compensate for the absence of character in the script. Downey is exactly the opposite kind of talent. His presence is never less than electrifying, but given a stock serial killer to play, he tends to showboat shamelessly. Neither performance is a disaster in terms of the film as a whole, since what’s remembered of dreams is a quality of light, a streak of movement, a string of words, and the sense of something lost underneath.
Nothing could be further from Jordan’s lyrical hyperrealism and his sense of how the unconscious floods daily life than Ken Loach’s character-driven social dramas. Returning from the romantic epic sweep of his Spanish Civil War film, Land and Freedom, and his semi-disastrous attempt to depict Latin American political struggle, Carla’s Song, Loach zeros in on an ordinary Joe named Joe, a recovering alcoholic from Glasgow with few economic options and too many old connections to a heroin-drenched underworld.
As played by the vibrant Peter Mullan, who’s as cocky and tender as the young-
ish Paul Newman, Joe is a character who commands your attention and your heart. He wants nothing so much as to live a clean, productive life, but, like everyone he knows, he’s on the dole, with no prospects of extricating himself from a poverty-based economy. (It seems as if the only legitimate jobs in Glasgow are providing social services for the poor.) He falls in love with a family counselor who’s wary of committing to him because of his violent past. He feels responsible for a hapless kid on his soccer team who’s in debt to the local mob boss. If Joe tries to save him, he risks losing himself, not to mention his girlfriend, in the process.
Mullan has an amazing energy and range. He lets you understand that Joe’s optimism is an act of will, his only defense against his terrible anger. Without being mushy, the film raises difficult questions about forgiving oneself, forgiving others, and the irreparable damage a word or an action can do to a relationship.
The last uncompromising leftist filmmaker, Loach shows how the economic and political system leaves basically good guys like Joe, trying to live one day at a time without hurting themselves or anyone else, little room for anything except bad choices. This is Loach’s best film since Riff-Raff and, like Riff-Raff, it’s being released in the U.S. with subtitles. Loach’s commitment to the Glasgow dialect makes it difficult, even for most British audiences, to understand the dialogue. It’s regional filmmaking at its radical best.