This 1998 thriller is a showcase for the acting talents of Annette Bening. She plays Claire (as in clear-sighted), an artistically inclined New England housewife who has a series of increasingly disturbing dreams that turn out to foretell the kidnapping and murder of her young daughter. After her daughter’s death Claire starts having more bad dreams, and she knows they are signs of worse violence to come, but no one believes her. Everyone-first her husband, then the town police chief, and finally the hospital psychiatrist (played with block-headed condescension by Stephen Rea)–assures Claire that her dreams aren’t real, and she just needs a few sleeping pills and some rest. She of course knows they’re all full of shit, and as she struggles to make sense of her dreams her life becomes a crazed maelstrom of fear and uncertainty, where it’s no longer possible to say what’s real and what’s not. The most intense and emotionally gripping scenes of the movie come when Claire imperceptibly slides from “real” reality into “dream” reality. These scenes are disturbingly effective in conveying a feeling of what it must be like to go insane.
Many of Claire’s dreams and visions center on apples-mounds and mounds of rotting red apples, so mealy and overripe you almost smell their sickly pungence. The apples are a clue to the villain’s identity and whereabouts, and here is where the movie begins to sag. Robert Downey Jr. does a respectable job of playing the ambiguously named Vivian, a creepazoid bad guy with all the demented intelligence, wicked humor, and perverse desire (vivace) you could ask for in a movie psycho killer. But we never really get an explanation of why this homicidal lunatic and an otherwise ordinary housewife are tuning into each other’s dreams. We’re asked simply to accept their strange psychic bond and devote all our attention to the movie’s stunning visual effects. To be sure, there is plenty to admire in this regard. Director of photography Darius Khondji fills the screen with eerie colors and haunting images. Claire’s fits of madness, Vivian’s freakish hideout, the submerged town where Vivian’s craziness began-these and many other images are rendered with a weird, otherworldly beauty. Indeed, the brief set of scenes where an adolescent Vivian cross-dresses as a nurse and slaughters his/her way out of a mental hospital are so powerful they practically jump off the screen.
But the sum of these astonishing images does not add up to a satisfying film. What’s missing? Just this: a true respect for the power of dreaming. “In Dreams” fails to take its own premise seriously. It begins with a strong burst of oneiric potency, but the film either can’t or won’t let the dreams run free, and in the end director Neil Jordan settles for the safety of irony. Claire dies and Vivian is spared the death penalty, but she (apparently in spirit form) gets the poetically just compensation of tormenting him in his dreams for the rest of his presumably miserable life. We in the audience are left with nothing more than a mean-spirited smile on our faces, and we have no deeper, richer sense of the world of dreams than when the movie began.