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Nightmarishly Good 'Dreams'

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 15, 1999

  Movie Critic

In Dreams
Robert Downey Jr. dwells in an emotionally harrowing cinematic dreamscape. (DreamWorks)

Neil Jordan
Annette Bening;
Robert Downey Jr.;
Stephen Rea;
Aidan Quinn;
Paul Guilfoyle
Running Time:
1 hour, 40 minutes
For violence, sexual scenes, nudity and profanity
"In Dreams," Neil Jordan's surrealistic thriller, which stars Annette Bening in an exhausting, breakout performance, follows its genre requirements with such insulting woodenness, you know something else is going on. How could the maker of "Interview With the Vampire," "The Crying Game" and "Mona Lisa" display such robotic adherence to form without meaning to?

Methinks there is method to the madness, and quite possibly, madness behind that. The scenario is a throwaway structure – a child lost, a mother whose psychic abilities are used to track the killer, the grungy detective, the friendly psychiatrist, blah, blah, blah. But poke through the cavernous ribs of this formula and greater things are revealed.

Claire Cooper (Bening) has an idyllic New England life. She's married to a devoted husband, who flies 747s. She has a lovely daughter (Katie Sagona) who is excited about her coming role in the school play. But Claire has been experiencing dreams and visions that connect her to traumatic events of the past and, tragically, the future. When she tries to convey these visionary warnings, she's treated with insensitivity by her husband and incredulousness by the local detective (Paul Guilfoyle).

Then, the unspeakable happens, the worst that can happen to a parent. The Coopers are devastated. Claire, with the help of the aforementioned sensitive psychiatrist (Stephen Rea), finds herself linked even closer to the mysterious being that has caused her so much pain.

She also finds herself with disconcertingly easy access to three worlds. There is the "real" one in which everyone seems remote, helpless or vaguely suspect. There is the watery ghost town of Northfield, which was submerged to create a reservoir in the 1960s, but which still percolates with tortured memories for her adversary. And there is the spiritual dimension where she can astrally visit the past, present and future.

As Claire, Bening plunges wholeheartedly into a whirlpool of madness, distress and clairvoyance, her People magazine dignity be damned. She leaves us unsettled rather than touched; we wonder whether she'll emerge sane or insane, defeated or triumphant. As her counterbalance, Robert Downey Jr. brings an extra eerie dimension to his performance born of his well-publicized struggles with addiction. But he more than admirably holds up his end of the movie's equation.

Jordan and his co-screenwriter, Bruce Robinson, have created an emotionally harrowing experience that seems equal parts artistic subversion, savage genius and sheer nastiness. And director of photography Darius Khondji, who created stunning work in "Seven," "Delicatessen" and "The City of Lost Children," gives breathtaking form to that strange agenda.

Jordan is an odd, but hypnotic dreamer. He pulls us into a nasty nightmare, refusing to turn the lights back on when he's through. But then, this is a film about breaking through to the other side. Why should we – the audience – ever get back to Kansas? Movies of the last 20 years (especially thrillers) have become so slickly routine, they have molded our sensibilities into a conventional, almost crabby set of expectations. A shake-up like this can only be good for the system – ours and Hollywood's. If you're interested in the cinematic equivalent of white-water rafting, I say take the plunge.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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