Imagine A Nightmare on Elm Street in real life and “how dumb it would be.” That’s at least part of what inspired writer/ director Kristoffer Borgli to cook up Dream Scenario. His weirdo story puts a regular man into everyone’s dreams and then wonders how that might affect him. In doing so, he creates an interesting manifestation of meme culture and being without control of your own reputation, but also wades into messy territory about “cancel culture” and what parts of our reputation truly are within our own control.
Nicolas Cage leads as Paul Matthews, a mild-mannered professor, husband, and father with a receding hairline and a collection of sweaters. His life is otherwise normal; he spends time with family and colleagues, worries about publishing works, and shows up randomly in the background of his daughter’s dreams. After a chance encounter with an old flame, Paul finds he’s showing up in other people’s dreams, too, something that initially causes a rift in the trust between him and his wife.
Soon, Paul discovers he’s become somewhat of a mythical figure, showing up in the dreams of people all over the world, mostly sitting in the background and being inconsequential. Suddenly, he’s a fascination, an oddity, and quickly famous — he’s a mark for stalkers, fans, and people turned on by his very presence. Paul struggles to handle his newfound fame while it’s positive, but then really begins to break down when the fame turns negative. Soon, Paul becomes a walking nightmare and loses complete control of how he is perceived and where he is welcome.
The ordeal is all a metaphor, for certain, but could be read more than one way. In one sense, it’s a metaphor for meme culture and instant internet fame. (Cage himself compared it to his experience becoming a “freaks out” meme and how he was unable to control it). He’s somewhat of a milkshake duck, rising rapidly to the height of fame, trying his best to milk it, and soon seeing the ire of a fanbase that turns on him.
Another, less flattering reading, would be that this is a story about “cancel culture” that uses a fault-less professor (an even messier allegory when you consider the professors who have been looked down upon in ways they deem to be “cancel culture”). That metaphor, though, does not render the story a forgiving one as Paul is most certainly not the hero of the story. His mild temper seems a mask for his shitty behavior, and he commits some unsavory acts, especially as he embraces the privileges that his fame gives him. The weakness isn’t so much in this potential reading, but more when the movie directly names it. The words “cancel culture” are uttered, and the name “Jordan Peterson” is mentioned, all which weaken the bit by naming what it might be reflecting upon.
Cage is the perfect conduit for this story, not just by virtue of having experienced meme fame himself but also as he continues to embody the inadequacy of aging men (not literally, of course). From his turns in things like Mom and Dad and the Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent, Cage’s work has embraced a specific self-awareness that allows him to have a laugh at the plight of an aging male. He is so strong and aware of what he is doing, and he brings a thicker layer of comedy to the entire affair as evidenced by having him slowly waltz through the woods in a character’s bizarre dream.
It’s also imperative to point out the dream imagery, which is what moves this from being a dry metaphor into a weird and wild surrealist comedy. While much of the dream happenings are fantastical and spacey, a lot of it is shot just like the rest of the movie with nothing but strange goings-on to denote that it’s not the movie’s reality. By doing so, it blends the dreams with reality to not just suggest a blurring of those lines but to also create mind-bending imagery to pull the audience into the illusory setting.
Dream Scenario is a bit shakey at moments but it’s certainly an interesting film begging to be discussed in the small crowds that form outside of the theater. It’s a bit of nightmare fuel and secures Cage’s legacy as one of the most interesting actors in the world.
Dream Scenario played the Toronto International Film Festival and is scheduled for release on November 10, 2023 in the US