Neil Jordan’s thriller In Dreams is unquestionably bad, but it’s not your ordinary bad movie. Jordan piles on the melodrama, the overacting, the omens and premonitions, the general dingbat excess, until the screen is full to bursting. Done even slightly differently, this could have been a glorious purple pleasure like Dead Again or Dressed to Kill or even Shattered. Those films were also cluttered pastiches of thriller elements and wildly implausible plot twists, but they were assembled with genuine, obsessive love. In Dreams, however, is stuck in a strange limbo: It’s too goofy to be taken seriously, but it takes itself too seriously to be enjoyably goofy.
The movie starts out at a high pitch and just goes higher, until it burns itself out at about the halfway mark. Largely responsible for the film’s shrillness is Annette Bening, as a haunted woman who sees bizarre and threatening future events in her dreams. Jordan has encouraged Bening to go for broke and turn in a stylized yet realistic portrait of madness; the problem is, Bening is too realistic, and not stylized enough, to be fun. She seems neurotic from the start; she’s hard to look at even before she cracks up. A lot of the time, you’re watching a confused, gifted actress trying to make sense of her role. At that, she’s no more successful than I was.
In Dreams is all plot twists, so I have to suggest rather than reveal. Opening this teeming Pandora’s box of a movie, we find the following: a submerged town, a mother-fixated killer (Robert Downey Jr., featured prominently in the ads, has what amounts to a glorified cameo), apples as symbols of abuse and portents of doom (the worm in the apple? the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree? what?), a loving dog forced to snack on someone’s face, Stephen Rea attempting some sort of Boston-Bronx accent (at the very end, we’re told the movie is set in Massachusetts), lip-biting, crossdressing, an excruciating children’s rendition of Snow White, and much more. You get the picture. A giant squirrel or two would not be out of place here.
As I said: not the ordinary bad movie. If I were in a generous mood, I might call it an extraordinary bad movie (as opposed to an extraordinarily bad one). After all, the director is Neil Jordan, who gave us the brilliant The Butcher Boy the previous year. He also co-wrote the script with Bruce Robinson, who contributed Withnail & I and How to Get Ahead in Advertising to the roster of great British comedies. If you go into In Dreams knowing all this, you give it the benefit of many doubts, and for far longer than you really should. Eventually, you get exhausted trying to suspend your judgment and your disbelief. It’s mesmerizingly awful, but it’s still awful.
Photographed by Darius Khondji (Seven), the movie looks terrific, but it looks terrific in the same way that Seven looked terrific; the derivative virus of the script has infected everyone involved, right down to poor Elliot Goldenthal, Jordan’s usual composer, who here swings between Bernard Herrmann’s lush orchestrations and John Carpenter’s solemn piano chords for Halloween. Jordan has often used songs as fetish objects in his movies (Mona Lisa, The Crying Game, The Butcher Boy), but nobody’s likely to leave this film humming “Don’t Sit Under the Apple Tree With Anyone Else But Me.” Every director is entitled to let his judgment go to hell at least once; Jordan drops his common sense so consistently here that much of In Dreams is fascinating, in a self-destructive, what-the-hell-was-he-thinking? way.
The movie is flabbergasting, but it’s nowhere near the same league as the usual bad Hollywood movie (ahem, Patch Adams). It’s off in its own twinkly world, speaking to us of fairy tales and floods and apples. This high-strung, unstable thriller has an odd effect, though: this extravagant failure reinforces Neil Jordan’s stature as one of the great modern filmmakers, if only because even when he makes a bummer, it’s difficult to shrug off. In Dreams nags at you as no merely bad movie can.