I must confess that it’s difficult to write a meaningful review of the 2011 psychological horror film, Dream House starring Daniel Craig, Rachel Weisz, and Naomi Watts without revealing the specifics of the twisting narrative.
Of course, if you happen to watch the film’s trailer, it gives away the whole story anyway, so perhaps I needn’t worry…
I don’t usually resort to spoiler warnings in my reviews, but in fairness, I should do so here. Please read no further if you still hope to be surprised by the details of Dream House.
All right, then.
Dream House not only stars three of today’s finest actors, it is directed by Jim Sheridan, the talent who gave us greats and near greats like My Left Foot (1989), The Field (1990), In The Name of the Father (1993) and Brothers(2009). Given such an impressive pedigree, you’d expect that Dream House would be more than your by-the-numbers, throwaway Hollywood would-be blockbuster.
Unfortunately, that’s precisely what the film is.
In short, if you’ve seen Shutter Island (2009) or John Carpenter’s The Ward (2010), you’ve pretty much seen Dream House too. The movie progresses along starkly predictable lines, and with precious little variation from established formula. Additionally, the film reduces the mysteries of the after-life to the sentimental platitudes of Ghost Whisperer or Touched by an Angel. That some of this treacle is actually emotionally affecting is a tribute to the quality of the actors, and their commitment to the boilerplate material.
Dream House is the tale of a family man, Will Atenton (Craig), who quits his job as an editor in Manhattan to write the great American novel at a rustic but expensive home in picturesque Connecticut. There, he lives with his wife, Libby (Weisz) and his two cute-as-button young daughters.
Soon, strange things occur at the house. Teenagers camp out in the basement. Interlopers stand at the windows and stare inside. Night visitors seem to lurk everywhere. Before long, Will learns that the previous occupants of the house — a family also consisting of a wife and two daughters — were murdered by a man named Peter Ward, the family patriarch.
In exploring the crime further, Will is shocked to learn that he is actually Peter Ward, and that he went mad after killing his family. The “spirits” of his family in the house are apparently mere manifestations of his twisted, sick mind. He invented the appellation “Will Atenton” in an attempt to deny his previous reality.
Yet Will/Peter is certain he would never kill his beloved family. He senses that the key to what really happened to his loved ones resides with a neighbor, Ann Patterson (Watts), who has been battling with her estranged husband for custody of their daughter.
If you watch Dream House with a careful eye, you’ll recognize The Sixth Sense (1999) gambit in play. Namely, Rachel Weisz’s character, Libby, never interacts with any other character and is never seen by anyone other than Will. Police and neighbors come and go all the time, and Libby is always conveniently in the background or off-screen when the interaction occurs. Once you become aware of this tactic, Dream House’s first narrative twist is patently obvious.
At about the forty-five minute point, Will Atenton – attention! — learns the truth about his identity (telegraphed by the last name “Ward”) and spends the remainder of the picture attempting to clear his sullied name. The film’s final twist revolves around the idea that the ghosts of Will’s family aren’t mere figments of his imagination. They are actual ghosts that can affect their environment, at least to some degree. This proves a convenient development, since the murderer rears his head again after five years, and threatens to kill Will.
The setting of Dream House is wintry, chilly and commendably melancholy. The score is appropriately lugubrious. You know from the first frames that something is legitimately amiss, and yet the film offers few genuine surprises.
One of them involves an authentically disturbing sequence wherein Will’s children begin to spontaneously manifest the bloody symptoms of the gunshot wounds that killed them. If you are a parent, you’ll find this moment utterly horrifying. It’s downright traumatic, and expertly vetted.
But the rest of the film is less spiky, daring, and blunt. Although Will/Peter is clearly delusional and confrontational, nobody in a position of authority thinks to put him away. Even when he visits his previous sanitarium, the doctors there don’t lock Will up. One physician even explicitly notes he is “a danger” to himself “and to others,” however. Of course, if a doctor truly believed such a thing, he would be legally and morally obligated to act upon his diagnosis, and that doesn’t happen.
Dream House hits a few other false notes. For instance, Will learns that the ghosts of his family are real and waiting for him in the afterlife, and yet he is forced to say goodbye to them at the tearful climax. Why say goodbye at all?
If I were separated from my wife and son and I knew they were alive in some spectral form – essentially still playing house, for eternity – I’d surely join them at my earliest possible convenience. It would be one thing if the film established that suicide would prevent Will from a rendezvous with his loved ones, but it doesn’t.
Instead, the ghosts are present and available to the sight and touch so long as the screenplay requires them to be. Then, when the movie wants to make the point about Will moving on with his life, the ghosts arbitrarily must leave, and he can’t see them anymore. It all feels a bit manipulative. That the tender goodbye between husband and wife works as well as it does, again, is because of Craig and Weisz.
Finally, the film’s last and most insulting touch — that Will writes a best-selling book about his experience — is a gross testament to our culture’s desperate desire for fame and fortune. So, Will has lost his wife and daughters at a young age…but hell, at least he’s rich!
If you gaze at Dream House long and hard enough, you begin to see how it wanted to be something other than a mechanical retread of the delusional protagonist story we’ve seen everywhere from Identity (2000) to the aforementioned Shutter Island and The Ward.
For example, there are many scenes here which nicely stress the gulf between idealized self and real life, perfect life vs. shattered life. We see it in the décor of the house, which zips back and forth between looking idyllic and dilapidated. We can see it in Will himself, who changes hair-dos and fashion sense whenever he becomes Peter. This is an interesting conceit, and yet the movie doesn’t really want to go with it. It would rather tell a The Fugitive (1993)-styled story of a man falsely accused of murder than the story of a man who, by necessity of psychological trauma, became two people.
But, of course, to accept that Will is schizophrenic, we must believe that he remembers absolutely nobody from his time as Peter. Not his cell-mates, not his doctor, and not his fellow inmates at the half-way house. And even more suspiciously, none of these folks confront him as Will, either. They just shoot him vaguely menacing looks from a distance. These unmotivated close-ups of wary police officers, doctors and other strangers happen so many times in the film that the editing gives the game away. We know much too soon (even without benefit of the trailer) that Will is Peter.
Dream House’snarrative also stalls out after a while, as if it is marking time for the next twist. For instance, we are told that Will can learn if he is really Peter by checking for a scar on the side of his head.
It takes him a long, long time to get around to that simple and certain test.
Because Dream House is so perfunctory and familiar a tale, the only real distinction it might achieve would be in term of visualization. I found this to be abundantly true of Carpenter’s The Ward for instance. Although the story resolved in a familiar fashion, the gleeful zeal of Carpenter’s 1960s exploitation approach ameliorated the tale’s predictability. Similarly, Shutter Island was so byzantine and elaborate that Scorsese was able to achieve much doubt and anxiety within the familiar frame work. But Dream House doesn’t possess much by way of flair in execution. The “two worlds” conceit I noted above is more than adequately addressed in terms of wardrobe and production design, but it could have also been applied to visual composition too, so that the world according to Will/Peter feels different and different times.
Ultimately, Dream House fails by being a bit schizophrenic itself. It wants to be all things to all demographics. It wants to create a world of mental delusion for Will, and suggest that his ghosts are real personalities, impacting the environment. It wants to make Will the guilty identity of a shamed and ruined Peter, but it doesn’t really want Peter to be ruined or shamed, either. He’s got to be a conventional heroic figure, and of course, he couldn’t be guilty of a terrible crime, right?
In zig-zagging so enthusiastically between premises, Dream House feels like a movie built on a foundation of shifting sand.