There are bad movies, and then there are disappointing ones, and some days I don’t know which are worse. There’s plenty of overlap between those categories, to be sure, but what really makes a film disappointing is a sense of wasted potential in a product that so totally squanders the creative men and women at its disposal that its failures are almost insulting to behold. When something like Bucky Larson: Born To Be a Star turns out to be atrocious, we nod and say, Well, given who made it, the writing was on the wall. But Dream House is maddening in its mediocrity because it boasts a solid cast and an impressive director, and in certain moments their creative energies fuse to create scenes of genuine impact and emotion. The film is so close to being so much better than it is, and so far from being worth the time and effort of its cast and crew, that watching it brings forth that special sadness that comes when gifted people really miss the mark. For every good idea or fleetingly touching moment, there are dozens of dull exchanges, exposition dumps, and hammy twists that seem designed to rob you of whatever good will you had started to feel toward the film. It’s a rote thriller that tries to become a penetrating psychological drama but stalls out halfway there.
The film’s few grace notes are courtesy of director Jim Sheridan, who’s made some of the most perceptive human dramas of the past 30 years and who knows his way around families and heartbreak. He brought such a glorious, bristling authenticity to films like My Left Foot and the somewhat autobiographical In America, and his way with actors and his deft hand at family drama elevate many of the film’s moments. Unfortunately, given the story he’s working with, he and his cast can only raise those moments from embarrassing to average. The script deals with Will Atenton (Daniel Craig), who quits his high-paying publishing job to spend more time with his family and work on his novel. He abandons the hustle of Manhattan for a fixer-upper in the small town of New Ashford, where he sets about living a simple life with his wife, Libby (Rachel Weisz), and their two daughters, Trish and Dee Dee (played respectively by real-life sisters Taylor and Claire Geare). Large sections of the set-up are devoted to small moments that explore Will and Libby’s relationship and its effect on the larger family dynamic, and Craig and Weisz work so well together that they’re convincing in their affection. You really do get the sense that he’s a beleaguered but loving father, and that she’s a strong mother. It’s almost easy in some scenes to ignore the larger story that keeps crowding in and just focus on the realistic emotions that are trying to drive the action.
But then that story intervenes, and the illusion fades. Weird things begin happening to Will and his family, and he soon discovers that their house was the site of a grisly murder a few years earlier in which a man shot and killed his wife and kids, only to be shot in the process by his dying wife and then carted off to a mental institution. This takes Will some considerable detective work and no small amount of conversations with locals who act skittish and weird when he brings up the murders, like his neighbor, Ann (Naomi Watts), who flat-out refuses to answer his questions and just walks away when he asks them. Then there’s the night when Will wanders down to his basement to find a group of vaguely goth-inspired teens straight out of Central Casting who seem to be performing some kind of ritual based on the murders, though their purpose is never clear. Finding himself beset by oddities and seeing strange people stalking his house at night, Will does what no one would do outside of a movie: He goes in search of Peter Ward, the man who killed his family years earlier and whose presence still lingers in the town like smoke.
Will’s investigation steers the story toward its inevitable conclusion, and I do mean inevitable: Nothing that happens feels remotely surprising, or interesting, or — worst of all — connected to anyone or anything on screen. David Loucka’s script is loaded with exposition dumps that treat the viewer like a small child, and Sheridan makes some curious directorial choices with these stilted and unbelievable conversations that make them even less convincing. Most of the characters speak as if they’re on a soap opera that just got back from a commercial break, peppering their speech with full names, dates, and places as if to remind viewers of what’s happened. (“Do you still have that gun I gave you last night?” etc.) That’s bad writing and lazy direction. Craig and Weisz unload a tonnage of charisma and warmth at the camera in their brave attempts to make ludicrous twists and gotcha moments work, but there’s only so much they can do.
Which really is a shame. The heart of the screenplay revolves around a man trying to figure out how to protect his family from an encroaching darkness that keeps trying to disrupt the nature of reality, and Sheridan draws out some winning moments from Craig as Will wrestles with the very dark truth of the murders. But that slender thread isn’t strong enough to keep the film together, and it starts to fall apart as soon as it comes together. It’s not egregiously bad, or offensive, or ugly. It’s just a crushing disappointment. Some films you want to forget because you feel worse for having seen them. Others, like Dream House, you hope to forget because you don’t want to remember such talented people making such miserable mistakes. May the ghosts of this story shuffle on and haunt no one.
Daniel Carlson is the managing editor of Pajiba and a member of the Houston Film Critics Society and the Online Film Critics Society. He’s also a TV blogger for the Houston Press. He tweets more often than he should, and he blogs at Slowly Going Bald.