Dream House is as bad a movie without glaring faults as you will ever see. It just doesn’t work. The timing is off, the direction is off and the acting is off. Every single thing about it is slightly wrong. It’s ninety-two minutes of errors that progressively compound into an unwatchable mess. If it were a television pilot, it would have been sent back with a vague note that said something like, “Let’s try and rework this”, but movies don’t provide second chances. What you show on opening night is the final product, and this end result doesn’t work at all.
Take Daniel Craig’s performance. The James Bond star has proven his talent numerous times, and he really does go for it here. There’s nothing phoned-in about his performance, but his eyes are a little too emotionless. The way he addresses his wife is just a little too dismissive to earn any sympathy from the audience. It doesn’t translate, and that slightly off the mark quality can be found in dozens of other performances, lines of dialogue and plot points. The big reveal, about forty-five minutes in and spoiled by the trailers, needed to come twenty minutes earlier or twenty minutes later. Naomi Watts, completely wasted, could have used about three more scenes to develop her character. It’s all just a fraction off, but when taken together, it’s a regrettable mess.
The trouble starts immediately with the film’s first scene in which we’re introduced to Will Atenton (Craig), an editor who’s decided to quit his job to work on a novel and spend more time with his family. There’s an office party to celebrate, but the rhythms of the conversation are strange and off-putting. Clearly, something is up, but those questions are put on the back burner when Will arrives at his new home. His wife (Rachel Weisz) and daughters (Claire Geare and Taylor Geare) are eagerly awaiting his arrival, and they’re pleased as punch about his newfound freedom. That optimism quickly dissipates though after strange characters start haunting the family’s new residence. At first, it’s a scary face in the window and footprints in the snow, but later, it’s teenagers hiding in the basement. They’ve snuck in to perform some sort of macabre ritual.
Apparently, a family was murdered in the same house five years ago, and that savage history of horror casts a long shadow over the neighborhood. The father was suspected in the slayings, but without evidence, he was confined to a mental institution. Will knows he needs to find the dad and figure out what happened to put his family at peace, but that resolution involves confronting his own past with the help of his neighbor Ann Patterson (Naomi Watts), who was there when the murders happened.
Psychological thrillers are always best when they unfold slowly. Discretion and ease are paramount and tension should grow until the viewer is finally blindsided by a frantic conclusion that accounts for the oddities littered throughout the film. Much to its detriment, Dream House is never able to capture that formula. It’s too heavy-handed at the beginning, yelling to even the densest viewers that something is amiss and too hellbent on redeeming its leads at the end, carving out a stupid solution that both betrays common sense and its own rules it previously set down.
It feels wrong that so many skilled people could have created such a disaster, but knowing the back story, it’s perhaps explainable. Dream House’s producers, unhappy with what they saw, swooped in and re-cut the film themselves. Just how much they altered is a matter of debate, but clearly, whatever they changed did not help. Director Jim Sheridan tried to get his name removed, but his request was denied. At least he had the right idea. No one deserves credit for Dream House. The whole thing is like watching a great baseball player foul a ball off his shin. It’s not from lack of effort, but it’s still the low point in a lot of great careers. I can’t wait to watch all involved again in anything that’s not this.