There is, perhaps, nothing more disheartening than a movie that opens
in such a truly riveting manner, with the clear-cut assurance that
what is to follow will be worth the wait, only to take a 180-degree
turn toward sloppy writing, meteor-sized plot holes, and an almost
complete disregard for characters and relationships that we have just
begun to get to know and care about. "Dreamcatcher" is, indeed, such
a film, but, fortunately, it is also so ambitious and the first hour
so freakishly intriguing and well-crafted that the derailed second
half can't completely bring it down. It does come close.
Based on the sprawling 2001 novel by Stephen King, "Dreamcatcher"
begins by introducing the viewer to four 30-year-old friends, tight-knit
since childhood and all linked by the gift of clairvoyance, given
to them years ago by a mentally retarded peer named Duddits (Andrew
Robb). Henry (Thomas Jane) is a depressed psychiatrist who often gets
himself into trouble by being able to read his patients' minds. Beaver
(Jason Lee) is an orally-fixated jokester who can sense what the future
holds. Pete (Timothy Olyphant) is a car salesman, unlucky in love
and in denial of his alcoholism, who can sense where things are no
matter how lost. And Jonesy (Damian Lewis) is an English professor
who experiences a ghastly apparition of Duddits before nearly fatally
getting hit by a car.
Six months later, Henry, Beaver, Pete and Jonesy join together for
their annual weekend at a secluded cabin in the snowy Maine forest.
Hoping to peacefully hang out and maybe do some hunting, their trip
suddenly takes a turn for the worst with a series of strange occurrences.
In an endless stream, the wildlife passes by their cabin, desperately
running away from something. They take in a disoriented stranger claiming
to be lost who has a terrible case of indigestion and gas. And a military
helicopter passes overhead with news of a widespread quarantine in
effect for the area. Before long, the foursome come to discover that
they are in the midst of a deadly, body-swapping, virus-infecting
alien invasion. Back at the military post, Colonel Abraham Curtis
(Morgan Freeman), a veteran slowly unraveling from his tireless 30-year
alien hunt, plans to wipe out the entire infected area before one
of the aliens is unleashed onto the rest of the world.
Written and directed by Lawrence Kasdan (1999's "Mumford") and co-adapted
by William Goldman (2001's "Hearts in Atlantis"), as complicated and
convoluted as "Dreamcatcher" may sound, be aware that there is more--much,
much more--where that came from. A B-movie in A-list clothing if there
ever was one, the film is silly, increasingly preposterous, and, finally,
frustrating. Nevertheless, the visual effects, courtesy of Industrial
Light & Magic, are top-notch and usually believable; the cinematography
by John Seale (2000's "The Perfect Storm") is chill-inducingly beautiful
and atmospheric; and the performances by a well-known ensemble are
convincing and refreshingly based in reality.
At a near-epic length of 136 minutes, the opening hour is absolutely
fabulous, too good to ultimately be true. Director Kasdan takes his
time in convincingly setting up the four guys and their close friendship,
sort of a cross between Kasdan's own 1983 classic "The Big Chill"
and King's "Stand By Me." Then, as the oddball and progressively dire
circumstances mount, the movie veers into a truly scary and taut rollercoaster
ride, one in which nobody is safe from the chopping block. A scene
involving Beaver, an aptly-named "shit weasel" trapped in a toilet,
and a bunch of toothpicks especially knows how to ratchet up the tension.
It may just be the most memorable and goosebump-inducing bathroom
scene since Stanley Kubrick's brilliantly mounted 1980 adaptation of King's "The Shining."
Had the picture continued on this more intimate and horrific path,
"Dreamcatcher" might have turned out to be one of the best Stephen
King adaptations ever made. The introductions of Col. Curtis, his
right-hand man, Captain Owen Underhill (Tom Sizemore), and a corkscrew
away from horror and into science-fiction territory, signal that it
is not to be so. As professionally shot and entertaining as it is,
one cannot help but be severely disappointed by the movie's multiple-personality
disorder. The sharply drawn characters are thrown away and replaced
by an avalanche of special effects and generic chase sequences. The
complex and slickly methodical set-up turns out to be nothing more
than a ruse, as the proceedings add up to very little. And the climactic
battle introduces a maddening plot development absent from the novel
that, when thought about for more than ten seconds, makes almost no
sense. Nevermind the absence of a satisfying last scene that should
have wrapped up the characters the movie had taken some time to develop.
As misguided as the last 75 minutes are, at least someone of the stately
stature of Morgan Freeman (2002's "The Sum of All Fears") is on-hand
to turn in such a dignified performance as the sympathetically unhinged
Col. Curtis. Freeman obviously has given the role more humanity than
was found on the written page, and it makes for a surprisingly interesting
character. As the four friends, Thomas Jane (2002's "The Sweetest
Thing"), Timothy Olyphant (2003's "The Safety of Objects"), Jason
Lee (2003's "A Guy Thing"), and Damian Lewis (HBO's "Band of Brothers")
give performances more layered than they have any right to be, almost
hurting rather than helping the film in the long run. Had these excellent
young actors not been so good, then perhaps it wouldn't have seemed
like such a betrayal when the second half thoroughly wasted them.
"Dreamcatcher" may be cluttered, occasionally confusing, and sometimes
even downright bad, but it also offers up ideas and individual moments
of sheer brilliance. The fantastical idea of Jonesy's Memory Warehouse
is auspiciously brought to life on the screen, and is its most creative
aspect. Through the good and the regretful, however, is an endless
fascination that the finished product holds over the viewer. Even
when Kasdan and screenwriter Goldman lets the audience down, and even
when it jumbles together the spare parts of other King stories ("It,"
"The Stand," "The Tommyknockers"), we can't help but be entertained.
Oh, how it could have been so much more than that, though.
Copyright © 2003 Dustin Putman