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Dream House

October 2, 2011
Dream House

People complain a lot about movie trailers that give away “everything”. Now, I’m not saying that there aren’t plenty of problems with the way trailers are typically cut these days, but for the most part they don’t actually show enough to ruin the whole movie. That said, Dream House is a notable exception. If you haven’t yet seen the trailer, don’t; in fact, don’t even keep reading beyond this point. If you go in blind you might salvage something, though I still doubt it.

We open on Will Atenton (Daniel Craig) leaving his job as a literary editor in New York in order to move out to Fairfield County and write a novel. Waiting for him in his new house are his wife, Libby (Rachel Weisz), and his daughters, Trisha and Dee Dee. Their newfound exurban bliss is interrupted, though, when they learn that the family who lived in the house five years previously had been murdered, presumably by the father, Peter Ward, who survived.

And so here comes the twist, which the trailer completely blows: Will Atenton is actually Peter Ward, squatting in his old house after being releases from a nearby psychiatric hospital. This is a perception-shattering revelation that completely recontextualizes everything we saw before this point, like the twists in The Sixth Sense and Fight Club, but even M. Night Shyamalan knows not to telegraph the twist any further ahead than the opening scene. Putting it in the trailer absolutely ruins the impact.

Half the fun of movies with a twist like this is that when they’re made well we actually get two movies; the first time we watch the story and get hit with the twist, and then the second time we can watch the exact same events unfold, but now knowing the secret that makes them mean something completely different. Having seen the twist in the trailer, the first half of the movie was wasted, since I was already in on the double interpretations.

But even aside from the spoiler trailer, Dream House has some pretty massive structural problems. Once you’ve pulled out the twist, there’s a transitional period while the protagonist — and the audience — is reoriented, and in this case the execution isn’t nearly as tight as it should be. I think I understand what writer David Loucka and director Jim Sheridan were trying to do in walking us through Ward’s psychic aftershocks, but it just drags out and doesn’t pivot effectively into the third act.

Speaking of which, when you put the twist this close to the halfway point, there is a lot of movie levy for you have to deal with, and it’s just not clear the filmmakers had any idea what to do with it. It tries to become a mystery story — if Peter Ward didn’t commit this crime then who did — but there’s not enough time left to deal with this effectively. Even the loose ends that the solution wraps up are only loose ends after the recontextualization that comes with the twist, and they’re delivered in massive, clumsy exposition dumps of flashbacks. It’s got all the tautness of a bad joke-teller asking if he forgot to mention that the two guys are on a beach.

So if you’ve read this far I’ve ruined whatever chance you had of enjoying the movie. But luckily I don’t think there was much chance of that to begin with, so no harm no foul.

Worth It: definitely not if you’ve seen the trailer or read this review; probably not anyway.
Bechdel Test: fail.

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