If “Dream House” were an actual structure, it would come with a Sub-Zero refrigerator (in the sewing room), a claw-foot tub (in the foyer) and beautiful French doors (at the bottom of the pool). The pieces are all there, but they don’t quite fit together.
When a movie with an A-list cast like Daniel Craig, Naomi Watts and Rachel Weisz, under the direction of Oscar nominee Jim Sheridan (“In America,” “My Left Foot”), doesn’t get screened for the press, the assumption is that the studio has a colossal stinker on its hands.
But if the makers of “Dream House” had been willing to knock down a few walls and get back to the foundation, they might have really had something. The premise and the execution hold a lot of promise, but the film’s climactic reveal will be incredibly obvious to anyone paying even the slightest amount of attention.
Will Atenton (Craig) is a New York book editor who quits his job so he can write a novel and spend more time with his wife Libby (Weisz) and young daughters Trish (Taylor Geare) and Dee Dee (Claire Geare) in the beautiful house Libby is restoring out in the suburbs. Of course, all is not well — there’s a lurking figure out in the shrubs every night, the neighbors are somewhat stand-offish, various bumps in the night are scaring the kids, and then Will discovers a group of teens congregating in his cellar to celebrate the anniversary of when the man of the house murdered his wife and children.
Will and Libby are understandably upset that the real-estate agent left out that little tidbit. Making matters worse, the local police don’t seem to want to be of any help with their guy-in-the-yard situation, and Peter Ward, the killer who used to live in their house, has been released from a psychiatric facility into a nearby halfway house, since there was apparently never enough evidence to charge him with the crime.
And then … well, there’s no way to keep talking about the plot without getting into spoilers, so if you don’t want to know the big twist of “Dream House,” stop reading now.
When Will visits the institution where the killer was sent, he discovers that he is Peter Ward. While he always claimed someone else murdered his wife and children, he was so haunted by guilt that he created a new identity for himself, and all the conversations we’ve seen “Will” have with his wife and children took place entirely in his head, in the run-down, graffiti-covered old house where he’s been squatting.
But neighbor Ann (Watts) may be able to help Will unlock the truth of what happened that horrible night, so that he can finally determine once and for all whether he slaughtered his family.
While most thrillers would save a big twist like that for the final minutes, so that we can realize how we’ve been fooled all along — in movies like “The Sixth Sense” or “Shutter Island,” for instance — “Dream House” takes the daring gambit of revealing the truth about what’s going on in Will’s mind halfway through the movie. And just when you wonder how the film can keep going after making such a shocking revelation so early, it winds up having a few more tricks up its sleeve.
Where the film goes fatally wrong is in making it easy to predict how things are going to wrap up. I won’t give away the goods, but let’s just say that screenwriter David Loucka should be forced to needlepoint Roger Ebert’s dictum about “The Law of the Economy of Characters” onto 500 samplers in penance.
It’s too bad that a movie that actually manages to spring genuine surprises on the audience is ultimately betrayed by a clearly telegraphed ending, because so much of “Dream House” really clicks, from the early plot switcheroos to Craig’s fascinating performance, which shifts gears as unpredictably and as unsettlingly as the script’s revelations demand.
Keeping pace with Craig are production designer Carol Spier and cinematographer Caleb Deschanel, both veterans in their respective fields, who do a great job of shifting back and forth between the "dream house" and the real one.
And yes, gossip fiends, he and Weisz do generate terrific chemistry — it was while making this film that the two of them became a couple, despite the fact that she was still with her longtime fella, director Darren Aronofsky, at the time.
“Dream House” reminds us that — in cinema as in architecture — one major design mistake can collapse the whole structure.