In midlife and mid-career, Neil Jordan has become something like the post-'60s generation's answer to Robert Altman -- and I mean that only partly as a compliment. In terms of filmmaking technique, the two are actually worlds apart; just as Jordan would be incapable of the improvisatory risk-taking that created Altman's remarkable "3 Women," Altman lacks the precision and intuitive sense of pace that informed Jordan's masterpiece, "The Crying Game." What they share is a kind of chameleonic craftsmanship, an ability to shape their artistic identities to fit specific projects. Both men have an impressive range and flexibility, allowing them to produce expertly crafted commercial films and more expressive, personal work -- and, in the right circumstances, to erase the distinctions between the two.
But what this implies, to me anyway, is the absence of an obsessive, inescapable and idiosyncratic vision, the kind of thing that made great filmmakers out of, say, John Ford and Alfred Hitchcock and Ingmar Bergman and Martin Scorsese. What I'm searching for here is an explanation for the fact that Jordan's new thriller, "In Dreams," despite its excellence of craft and elegance of construction, left me unmoved. Surely a film about a psychic serial killer who gets inside the heroine's head and drives her insane is supposed to possess you, rob you of sleep, give you the whim-whams in the small hours. Instead, "In Dreams" strikes me as clever, sometimes even exquisite, rather than troubling or dangerous. Almost any thriller made these days wears its influences on its sleeve, but the problem with this movie's obvious debts to "The Silence of the Lambs," "Nightmare on Elm Street," "Psycho" and even "Barton Fink" is that it lacks the profound psychic undertow of any of them. For a movie about madness, the subconscious of "In Dreams" seems altogether too orderly, too sane.
Mind you, I wouldn't be thinking about this so much if "In Dreams" weren't one of the best-made Hollywood thrillers of recent years. Perhaps the finest reason to see it -- and there are plenty of good ones -- is the performance of Annette Bening as Claire, a children's book illustrator and upper-middle-class mom whose troubling dreams have begun to nibble at the edges of her daylight world. Bening has tremendous acting technique (born of her many years in theater), and this is one of the few movie roles where she's really gotten to show it off. At first, Claire is just a slightly edgy housewife, maybe a little too dotty over her adorable little daughter, Rebecca, and over the possible infidelity of her airline-pilot husband, Paul (Aidan Quinn, given little to do in the movie's least satisfying role).
But someone in Claire and Paul's almost idyllic rural Massachusetts community -- depicted by cinematographer Darius Khondji with a muted, lovely autumnal palette -- is abducting and murdering little girls, and Claire believes she is dreaming about him. Claire has illustrated an edition of Grimm's Fairy Tales, and the elements of her dream realm seem borrowed from that world of sinister, infanticidal myth: a man, a girl, a haunted apple orchard, a cryptic nursery rhyme scrawled on a wall. These dream sequences bear faint memories of Jordan's underappreciated "The Company of Wolves," a film shot through with an almost electrical current of medieval mystery -- something "In Dreams," for the most part, can only simulate.
When Rebecca disappears, right after appearing in the kindergarten production of "Snow White," Claire understands that the killer inside her head has been telling her what he will do, not what he has done. Claire's bereaved, suicidal outrage, her harrowed descent into a synesthetic madness where she clings to the fact that she is mad and the monster invading her head is mad, but both of them are real, is an acting tour de force, dense with compassion and resolution. In fact, this film's most terrifying and extraordinary moments come when Claire is alone. In one such scene she's possessed, trying to cram dozens of apples down the disposal while the camera slews back and forth like a listing yacht and the killer chatters in her head; in another, she stands transfixed in the middle of the highway, causing a spectacular multi-vehicle pileup that leaves her gibbering with hysteria but physically unharmed. When her psychiatrist (Stephen Rea, laboring uncomfortably with a New York Jewish accent) asks whether the voice in her head made her slash her wrists, as it made her do these other things, the haggard Claire gathers herself up and says, "No, that was all my own work."
Jordan and co-writer Bruce Robinson (the onetime cult director whose filmmaking career foundered after "Withnail and I" and "How to Get Ahead in Advertising") have devised some genuinely imaginative plot twists, notably at the film's conclusion, which veers from slam-bang action to New Age sentimentality to outrageous coda in nothing flat. But once the stage is cleared of other characters and Claire is locked in mano-a-mano combat with Vivian, the serial killer, we're on largely familiar ground. Wittily played by Robert Downey Jr., Vivian is a generic if amusing and almost sympathetic weird-kid-grown-up, who can go from murderous outbursts to stumbling apology and then suggest "pasghetti" to his captives for dinner.
Between them, Downey and the amazing Bening very nearly manage to make "In Dreams" seem like a movie that somebody gave a damn about from more than a technical standpoint. Few Hollywood products are made with this level of care for mood and attention to detail -- Khondji's unshowy, evocative camerawork is exemplary, and Elliot Goldenthal's fine original score emphasizes complex, orchestral dissonance rather than electronic clichi. But leaving a movie thinking about the craftsmanship is a bit like leaving a restaurant raving about the presentation. "In Dreams" is, in a certain sense, the best of Jordan's films since "The Crying Game." But like his other big-budget efforts from this period ("Interview With the Vampire," "Michael Collins," "The Butcher Boy"), this excellent movie comes encased in a kind of chill. Not quite enough of this chill is the dank frisson of horror, I'm afraid, and far too much of it is a passionless, scientific detachment.