Make it a Double: THE SNOWMAN & IN DREAMS

The story of a woman trapped in a nightmare

Michael Fassbender hunts down a serial killer in The Snowman, one of the current wide-releases in the somewhat crowded multiplex. The film is based on a bestselling novel of the same name and sees the actor chasing down a maniacal madman fond of decapitating his victims. The Snowman has already been called one of the year’s worst and will probably be forgotten as instantly as it showed up on people’s radars. Regardless, the movie does allow me the chance to sneak in a column of one of my favorite underrated entries into the serial killer game; Neil Jordan’s In Dreams.

In Dreams centers on Claire Cooper (Annette Bening), a wife, mother and successful children’s book author/illustrator. Despite seeming to have everything, Claire finds herself plagued by haunting visions of lost girls who go missing and eventually turn up dead. When her own daughter disappears, she tells her husband Paul (Aidan Quinn) that she’s sure that the man who has begun haunting her dreams is the one who took their daughter. After her child turns up dead, Claire finds herself in a mental hospital under the watchful eye of Dr. Silverman (Stephen Rea) who listens to her as she talks about a man named Vivian Thompson (Robert Downey Jr.) and how his dark past made its way into her dreams.

Because this is a Jordan film, In Dreams naturally employs some breathtaking visuals in telling its frightening story. The film begins with an incredibly dreamlike opening featuring an old small town submerged in water. The location keeps recurring throughout the film, maintaining a surreal, nightmarish feel as the audience follows a woman who isn’t always in the same reality as everyone else. Watching as Claire keeps getting pulled into a world full of darkness and evil, despite her best attempts not to, makes for equal moments of great beauty and sheer mental torment. Throughout the course of In Dreams, the haunting imagery of Vivian’s tortured childhood is played out, working against the tranquility of Claire’s normal life, destroying it in the process. The result is a film which is a work of art to behold, even as the terror-filled journey of its heroine unfolds. One scene in particular which sees Claire dressed in red walking through the deserted, snow-covered town is as stunning as it is haunting, especially in seeing the way it stirs her already-fragile psyche.

Where In Dreams functions best as a Jordan film however is in its bold and disturbing content. Touches such as the scene with schoolchildren frolicking and laughing all around Claire as she searches for her daughter is harrowing as she begins to grow more and more desperate to find her child. Eventually, the film goes VERY dark for a Hollywood production, even by Jordan’s standards with the introduction of Vivian, a former victim of child abuse whose kidnaping and killing of young girls populates Claire’s mental space. Things really becomes charged when Claire starts to follow Vivian via dream, with both worlds blending together beautifully in the film’s most Jordan-like sequence. Watching Vivian and Claire moving and thinking in the same manner while in different decades is where In Dreams is at its most unsettling, especially in the way the latter starts to act like the former. As Vivian begins to infect her more and more, the differences between visions of the past and the future become clouded as Claire struggles to stay alive.

In Dreams features some of Bening’s bravest and most raw moments on screen. Given the nature of the film and the character’s situation, the role of Claire could have resulted in an over-the-top performance, but it’s a testament to the actress’s skill that she plays it with the most genuine commitment. Bening believes Claire is seeing what she says she is, and it makes all the difference in the world when it comes to giving her credible performance. As a result, the audience doesn’t laugh at her, but instead remain on her side all the way through. Although they’re up for the task, Quinn and Rea don’t have much to do beyond reacting to Bening, with the latter sadly wasted. Meanwhile, Downey plays a psychotic killer as well as anyone would expect him to by using his trademark intensity to great unsettling effect. It’s just a shame that he doesn’t show himself until the movie’s final half hour since his turn as someone suffering from years of mental abuse and homicidal tendencies is extraordinary.

Maybe the studio had second thoughts about the film, which might’ve been the reason it sat on the shelf for a slightly extended period after filming had wrapped. In Dreams was subsequently dumped into theaters in early January 1999 where lousy reviews and a lack of audience interest all but ensured its failure.

No one can call In Dreams a perfect thriller. The narrative could’ve used some tightening up around the edges, while its focus group-driven editing is hard to ignore. However the movie’s many maddening qualities as well as its disturbing tone takes firm hold of the audience and never loosens up its grip. From its camera angles, to its construction, the film is in many ways as fragmented and off-center as Claire’s dreams, oftentimes coming off as an exploration into the odyssey of a disturbed mind struggling to find light within a literal sea of darkness.

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