Dream House (United States, 2011)

October 01, 2011
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Dream House Poster

Hours after seeing Dream House, I was still trying to figure out how a movie starring Daniel Craig, Rachel Weisz, and Naomi Watts, lensed by Caleb Deschanel, and directed by Jim Sheridan could be such a disappointment. It's obvious what's wrong with the film; it's not clear how things got to this stage. Was the screenplay, credited to David Loucka, this schizophrenic from the beginning? Or was some major tampering/reworking done at some point? Universal Pictures recognized the problem, although too late to attempt a legitimate fix - that's why Dream House was not shown to critics before its release. When a film directed by an art-house darling and starring three such well-respected actors is hidden from the press, the studio might just as well wave a white flag printed with the words: "Stay Away."

Had someone entered the theater and bodily dragged me from my seat about 15 minutes before Dream House's end credits rolled, I might have given the film a full star more. The fact is, I liked a lot of this movie. It's atmospheric and, as the narrative rolls along, it becomes clear that seemingly apparent plot holes are not plot holes at all. The movie is engaging. It's a study in identity, psychosis, and psychological healing. It's the kind of film that makes you wonder how well it would hold up during a second viewing. 70 minutes into the 90-minute process, I was engaged. Then it all collapsed.

Film-goers and critics often speculate about whether a bad ending can ruin an otherwise decent movie. In a case like this, the answer is a resounding "Yes!" But Dream House's catastrophic final 15 minutes aren't just mind-numbingly dumb and head-scratchingly idiotic, they seem to have been crafted by a script hijacker who didn't like the occasionally obtuse first three-quarters and wanted to inject a toxic does of Hollywood into a non-mainstream production. Watching Dream House is like having a pretty good dinner then being served a dessert topped with rancid, mildewed berries. You forget the good parts of the meal as you're leaning over the toilet expelling them.

Will Atenton (Craig), an executive at a New York City publishing firm, has quit his job so he can concentrate on writing a novel and spend more time with his wife, Libby (Weisz), and children, Trish (Taylor Geare) and Dee Dee (Claire Geare). The family has recently purchased a house in a New England town and intend to renovate it so it becomes their "dream home." Then, as is their wont in movies of this sort, ominous things begin to happen. Dee Dee sees the face of a man peering through a window. Libby thinks the house doesn't "feel right." And a group of teenagers sneak into the basement through an outside entrance and hold a séance. Will starts digging and learns that the previous owner of the house killed his wife and children on the premises and is now in a psychiatric hospital. As even stranger events occur, Will turns to his across-the-street neighbor, Ann (Watts), for answers. However, even though she seems friendly, she is unwilling to reveal whatever secrets she harbors.

Although the first 30 minutes of Dream House come across as fragmented, obtuse, and generally odd, the payoff occurs in the film's middle section. Those who have seen the unacceptably spoiler-ish trailer already know the big "reveal," but it puts everything in perspective. (Note to potential viewers: Do NOT watch any publicity material, such as the trailer, before seeing the movie.) Had the filmmakers possessed confidence in this line of reasoning and continued to explore the psychological impacts of living in this "haunted house," Dream House might have taken viewers to some tragic and moving places. Instead, it drowns in artifice and exploitation. The deaths of young children must always be handled carefully; Dream House turns them into a plot device.

For the most part, this is not a horror film, although it edges close at times, and Sheridan throws in a "boo!" moment or two. It's more of a psychological thriller, although that's not how it's being marketed and sold. Those expecting a Paranormal Activity-type experience will be bored out of their skulls. For its first two-thirds, the movie won't be hurried; it moves at its own pace, which is necessary to explore its themes and ideas. It's a great misfortune that the narrative veers off course then crashes and burns before the end credits can rescue it. There's worthy material here, and the skeleton of a gripping story, but those elements, like the excellent cast, are wasted in what becomes a nightmare production.

Dream House (United States, 2011)

Director: Jim Sheridan
Cast: Daniel Craig, Rachel Weisz, Naomi Watts, Marton Csokas, Elias Koteas, Taylor Geare, Claire Geare
Screenplay: David Loucka
Cinematography: Caleb Deschanel
Music: John Debney
U.S. Distributor: Universal Pictures
Run Time: 1:30
U.S. Release Date: 2011-09-30
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Violence, Sexual Content)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1