Dream House (2011)
Director: Jim Sheridan
Writers: David Loucka (Screenplay)
Cast: Daniel Craig, Rachel Weisz, Naomi Watts
Running time: 92 minutes
Despite its undoubted popularity, the psychological-thriller genre remains an incredibly tough nut to crack. When it’s done right – as in Aronofsky’s Black Swan or Nolan’s Memento – the genre is a remarkably diverse and versatile way of exploring abstract ideas such as reality, memory and perception, through engrossing narratives and striking imagery. However, the interpretive nature of the genre means that filmmakers often fall prey to the mistake of taking a strong central premise and weaving a complicated and convoluted narrative around it, without ever paying much attention to narrative exposition and plot development. Richard Kelly’s 2009 film, The Box, is a concrete example of this, where a great central idea (taken from a Richard Matheson short-story) becomes lost amongst a web of art-house science fiction that neither works nor resolves itself. Unfortunately, Jim Sheridan’s Dream House suffers from a similar fate.
The troubled production history of the film has been well-documented, and does little to help proceedings. Unhappy with the way the film was heading, director Jim Sheridan fell-out with James G Robinson, one of the producers of the film; a disagreement that caused the film’s studio, Morgan Creek, to remove control from Sheridan. The studio then reshot and recut a number of key scenes and produced a trailer that overtly gave away the film’s central twist. As a result, Sheridan attempted to remove his name from proceedings, and refused to take part in any promotional publicity for the film. Because of these troubles, it should come as no surprise that Dream House is a film that very much lacks an authoritative guiding hand; it’s a patchwork quilt of a movie that is held together only by some decent performances from its cast.
The narrative tells the story of Will Atenton (Daniel Craig) and his wife, Libby (Rachel Weisz), who exchange the bustle of city life for the idyllic countryside when they purchase a new house in a picturesque setting. Will quits his job, determined to write a novel for a living, and Libby seems content to look after the couple’s two young girls. Sound familiar yet? If not, it will in a moment. Despite the seemingly tranquil nature of rural life, a number of unsettling events occur that prompt Will into looking into the history of the house; the children start seeing a shadowy figure outside the window and Will discovers a group of teenagers holding some kind of ritual in the basement of his property. Confused yet intrigued, Will and Libby discover that their home was the site of a brutal murder (now it should be familiar), where a deranged father reportedly butchered his family. As if those clichés weren’t enough, the disturbed murderer has recently been released from a psychiatric hospital due to a lack of evidence, and Will fears he could be heading home. In order to protect his family, Will must confront his own past, wrestle with his own demons, and battle with his own subconscious in order to untangle the confounding mystery and lay to rest the events that threaten his existence. Predictable? Never.
The first half of Dream House is as clichéd as the rather tongue-in-cheek synopsis above suggests; the film’s plot echoes all manner of horror films, from The Shining to The Amityville Horror, yet despite the familiarity of events, it is in this first half, where circumstances are firmly rooted in reality, that the film is at its most watchable. There is nothing at all original here, but the on-screen chemistry between off-screen sweethearts, Craig and Weisz, is enough to hand proceedings a degree of credibility and intrigue.
That all of this build-up is a deliberate device to lull us into a false sense of security is no real surprise, yet when the film’s major plot twist occurs relatively early on, the film becomes an exercise in frustration and patience. Unlike the film’s trailer, I won’t give away the twist, but it is nevertheless a twist that feels deliberately designed to shock its audience. From then on, it becomes extremely difficult for the narrative to explain events in a credible and believable way and instead, we become embroiled in a surreal and confusing storyline where reality and perception become clouded by the unreliable memory of our protagonist.
And it’s a shame, because I’m relatively sure that there is a good idea in there somewhere; not in the film’s build-up, which is well-handled but remarkably predictable, but in the film’s second half where the relationship between perception and memory is explored. Granted, this is not an entirely original concept either, but it is an idea that has potential; it’s just a shame that Dream House completely loses its way when it attempts to explore it. Undoubtedly, the issues regarding the film’s production history have a bearing on events, but the film’s complicated storyline requires a great deal more subtlety and exposition than what is afforded here. The script is also remarkably lifeless, and both Daniel Craig and Rachel Weisz are handed the unenviable task of making the best of relatively little.
It’s therefore surprising that Daniel Craig – an actor that, for the most part, I find completely detached and disengaging – manages to come across so well in the film. He effectively lends Will an everyman persona that is not too far removed from his portrayal of Joe Rose in Enduring Love, and he holds the film together when its narrative, script, and direction are all cracking at the seams. His co-star and real-life wife, Rachel Weisz, is also notably good in her role, and Naomi Watts is functional, yet under-used, as the couple’s neighbour. However, the performances of its cast do little in the end to lift Dream House from the murky depths of forgettable psychological thriller, and after an hour and a half of head-scratching, beard-stroking, and thumb-twiddling, the film ends with a sequence that is neither engaging nor satisfying; it’s just an ending. In one final twist, however, even the welcome sanctuary of the film’s closing credits is complicated by a cringe-worthy Ashanti song, where processed beats and synthetic piano lines threaten to pollute everything within a five-mile radius.
Whilst Dream House is a film that suffers greatly from its problematic production history, it is also a film that suffers greatly from a convoluted narrative, an uninteresting script, and a particularly troublesome plot twist that is never satisfactorily resolved. Watching the film, I was reminded of the sheer number of psychological thrillers that fail to successfully blend the surreal nature of personal perception with an engaging and interesting narrative. The film’s second half may contain a decent idea somewhere, but because of the way that the plot unfolds, it’s extremely difficult to find it. I suppose one of the positives to be taken from Dream House, lies in the fact that it’s the film that brought Daniel Craig and Rachel Weisz together. But then, who really cares?