Written by: Stephen King (novel), William Goldman & Lawrence Kasdan (screenplay)
Directed by: Lawrence Kasdan
Starring: Morgan Freeman, Thomas Jane, and Jason Lee
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman (@brettgallman)
"Jesus-Christ-bananas, some fuckarow this is turning into."
The word “unadaptable” is sometimes thrown around with Stephen King’s work, either because of the sheer volume of his novels or the abstract nature of many of his ideas. However, in the case of Dreamcatcher, the word applies for a simpler reason: who in their right mind would even want to adapt a novel that King himself has all but disavowed as the ramblings inspired by painkillers? Incredibly enough, someone did step up to this particular plate, and it wasn’t just anybody, either: for whatever reason, Lawrence Kasdan and William Goldman—a pair responsible for numerous genuine classics throughout the years—decided to tackle this material, presumably with the aim of working it into something that doesn’t feel like a low-rent version of It.
After all, if anyone could elevate such material, it’d be the guys separately responsible for the likes of Raiders of the Lost Ark, The Empire Strikes Back, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, and All the President’s Men. With an all-star cast in tow, the two were seemingly poised to make magic—if Dreamcatcher were released today, it’d probably be touted as “prestige horror” or “post-horror” or whatever nonsense term people are dreaming up these days to excuse their love of horror movies. Instead, Dreamcatcher stands as proof that there’s no such thing is a sure thing, as Kasdan and Goldman didn’t shy away from diving straight into the insane heart of King’s unhinged novel. Ironically enough, this would have been one of the few times it might have benefited an adaptation to stray from King’s novel—well, if you’re the type of person who would prefer not to watch utter nonsense unfold on screen.
But for the rest of us, including yours truly? Dreamcatcher is magic, if only because it prompts you to constantly wonder just how in the hell so many talented people conspired to make something that flies so spectacularly off the rails. You have to imagine that at some point, somebody on set had to recognize that this thing really wasn’t working, yet everyone seemingly charged ahead anyway—and thank god for that. The final product doesn’t even bear the faintest pretense that it’s going to play by any rules of decency since the very first scene features psychologist Henry Devlin (Thomas Jane) fat-shaming a client and exploiting the guilt over his mother’s death, sending the poor guy fleeing from the room (but only after he breaks the chair—“he’s that fat!” the script seems to insist as a joke). If that weren’t a bewildering enough cold open, Henry immediately brandishes a gun and puts it to his head, hinting at suicidal thoughts that will quite literally never reveal themselves for the rest of the movie.
Here, the only thing that stops him from pulling the trigger is a phone call from Jonesy (Damian Lewis), a childhood friends who refers to another, absent friend Duddits. The two make plans to get together to hang out with their missing friend but Jonesy suffers a near-death experience later that night after being plowed into by an ambulance, with his final, hallucinatory visions revealing the infamous Duddits, who issues a cryptic, mush-mouthed warning about a “Mr. Gray.” You’ll be hard-pressed to find a more bewildering opening 15 minutes in a major studio release. Dreamcatcher seems like it’s been explicitly designed to fuck with you.
But that’s just the beginning! It turns out that Henry and Jonesy are part of a quartet of childhood friends from Derry, and they’ve all gathered at a wilderness retreat six months later. What’s more, they all have telepathy alongside other abilities: for example, Pete (Timothy Olyphant) is able to find any missing object, a talent he mostly uses in the service of hitting on women. Meanwhile, Beaver (Jason Lee) seems to have been gifted with the ability to invent the corniest fucking catchphrases imaginable. I’m actually not sure what he can do beyond exclaim “fuck me Freddy!” or “fuck-a-roo” every few minutes. It’s a bold way to define a character, if not one that reveals King’s penchant for crafting some truly corny nuggets of dialogue at times. There’s a scene where Thomas Jane has to earnestly recite the Mighty Mouse theme from the kid’s childhood, and it’s an all-time guffaw-inducing moment in both its randomness and its utter embarrassment. I love it.
Eventually, an actual plot does reveal itself when aliens descend on the surrounding wilderness, prompting a military outfit headed by Morgan Freeman and Tom Sizemore to arrive and quarantine the location. The aliens take the form of parasitic slugs commanded as a hive-mind by the elusive Mr. Gray, who possesses Jonesy to enact a world-breaking plot involving dropping an infected dog into Boston’s water supply. Flashbacks reveal that this particular group of friends has been unknowingly bracing for this confrontation since they rescued the enigmatic Duddits from bullies and befriended him as children. While Duddits (whose actual name is Douglas) has Down Syndrome, he’s gifted with otherworldly abilities that he bequeaths his new friends, who are oblivious that they’ve been ensnared in the cosmic conflict that begins to unfold over this doomed weekend retreat.
Whew. Dreamcatcher is the type of film you just feel compelled to recap, not unlike a wild story you recount to disbelieving friends. “Wait, a character tries to trap one of the alien slugs in a toilet? And you’re telling me he dies because he reaches to pick up a toothpick off of a grimy, blood-soaked floor?” Yes, it’s all true—and I didn’t even mention the floor is bloody because a guy’s asshole literally explodes when one of the slugs blasts its way out. I could continue to rattle off the total insanity, but I feel like I’ve already said too much already. If you’re among the uninitiated, you really have to see Dreamcatcher to believe it. Sure, there have been totally delirious and insane movies before, but how many of them boast this kind of pedigree? Imagine going to a five-star restaurant staffed by world-renowned chefs and being served some kind of half-baked casserole full of random (but sometimes weirdly tasty!) ingredients. That’s Dreamcatcher.
Those of you who are among the initiated practically belong to some kind of club, with multiple secret handshakes offering initiation. Shit weasels. SSDD. Morgan Freeman’s incredible eyebrows. Jonesy’s memory warehouse. Damian Lewis putting on some bizarre English accent when he’s possessed by Mr. Gray. Timothy Olyphant nearly having his dick gnawed off by an alien. A mid-movie diversion where Dreamcatcher suddenly becomes a half-ass Independence Day knock-off, complete with helicopters eradicating an entire legion of grey men pleading for their lives. Just when you’ve collected your jaw from the floor, Dreamcatcher coaxes it right back down at every turn.
And then there’s Duddits—fucking Duddits, man. I wouldn’t call him an ill-advised character, but this particular depiction certainly is quite questionable, especially once Donnie Wahlberg emerges as the adult Duddits, where puts on this cartoonish portrayal of an intellectually challenged individual. Something about it fits in with the whole “prestige film gone awry” vibe—I’m sure at least a handful of people were convinced Wahlberg’s performance was the sort of brave turn that might net some awards buzz, or at least I like to think so. In reality, of course, it only transforms King’s wince-inducing characterization into something that’s completely cringe-worthy. Not that you’re left to completely dwell on these problematic aspects once Duddits’s true identity is revealed in a brain-breaking climax involving multiple chases, Morgan Freeman going HAM, and splattering shit weasels.
You have to squint really hard to see what most reasonable folks might have envisioned for Dreamcatcher. With Kasdan at the helm, it’s easy to see it pitched as something like “The Big Chill meets Alien*,” where the characters’ bizarre shared childhood somehow illuminates something about the human condition. You’ll find none of that here, though: outside of John Seale’s polished photography and James Newton Howard’s score, Dreamcatcher rarely feels like the type of movie you’d expect from the other talent here. And, if I’m being honest, that’s what makes it so completely fascinating: Dreamcatcher is no mere dud but rather an incredible misfire that does not give a shit. Within its opening minutes, it’s so obviously missed the mark of tact and decency that it can do nothing besides shrug it off and double down over the course of the next two hours.
As I watched it unfold in theaters nearly 15 years ago, I sensed that I was experiencing something special, albeit in a way I did not expect before settling in. Formative movies are usually associated with childhood, but Dreamcatcher certainly played a role in shaping my sensibilities just as I was about to enter my 20s. Completely dismissing this thing as a bad movie would have been easy; instead, I embraced it, not unlike how these childhood friends embraced the unfairly maligned Duddits. Sometimes, you just have to take these types of movies in and allow them to take you wherever they roam, no matter how far off the path they might stray. Dreamcatcher strays wildly, but it so forcefully sweeps you up in its lunacy that it becomes infectious, inviting you, too, to declare “I Duddits!,” thus firmly committing yourself to its cult.
*To be clear, Dreamcatcher still manages to be more worthwhile than The Big Chill. Fuck that cloying Boomer nostalgia nonsense into oblivion.
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