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'Dreamcatcher' walks the line between weird and cheesy

Friday, March 21, 2003

By Ron Weiskind, Post-Gazette Movie Editor

There is a moment during the funhouse mirror known as "Dreamcatcher" in which Morgan Freeman, playing a military commander, proclaims, "They shop at Wal-Mart. They never miss an episode of 'Friends.' They're Americans!"


RATING: R for violence, gore and language.

STARRING: Morgan Freeman, Thomas Jane, Jason Lee.

DIRECTOR: Lawrence Kasdan.

WEB SITE: dreamcatchermovie.com


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There is not a trace of mockery in his voice. This is a tribute to a group of his fellow citizens. He happens to be holding them in quarantine and if he has his way, he will have to exterminate them to keep an infection from spreading. But he won't like having to do it. All the while, we're staring at his eyebrows and his brush cut, both of which look like they're on steroids.

The pleasures of "Dreamcatcher" lie in the lunatic sensibility running just below the surface of this Stephen King adaptation. Director Lawrence Kasdan and his screenwriting partner William Goldman have accomplished a very difficult feat in allowing the film's considerable eccentricity to temper the improbabilities of a typical horror movie. The weirdness combines with the dread to make you laugh in the wrong places and jump in the right ones, but it knows when to pull back from going completely over the top.

The filmmakers set the tone in the scenes that introduce us to the main characters. Psychiatrist Henry Devlin (Thomas Jane) freaks out one of his patients by knowing too much about the man. He is interrupted from drastic contemplation of these consequences by a call from his friend Jonesy (Damian Lewis), a professor who has caught a student cheating without being in the room with him. Jonesy, in turn, gets a call from pal Beaver (Jason Lee), telling him to be careful without knowing why -- he turns out to be right. Meanwhile, car salesman Pete (Timothy Olyphant) proves too helpful in assisting a pretty woman who has lost her keys.

They all speak about someone they call Duddits, of whom they appear very fond but whom they haven't seen in a long while. They reminisce some more on their annual retreat to a hunting cabin in the Maine woods, where the appearance of a lost hunter suffering from belching and flatulence signals the onset of bizarre and deadly forces coming at them, as it turns out, from two sides.

Before the movie ends we learn the identity and significance of Duddits, the cause of the spreading terror, the peccadilloes of the central characters: Beaver likes to chew on toothpicks, Pete drinks more than he should.

Kasdan proves skillful at dribbling out just as much information as we need and no more. The suspense builds along with the heebie-jeebies as Beaver and Pete follow a trail of blood (or something) to a bathroom where the hunter has locked himself in. Do we really want to see what's in there? Let's just say it's very Freudian and has very sharp teeth.

Cheesy? Yeah, in a way. There's no denying that "Dreamcatcher" borrows liberally from any number of horror movies, including many based on King's works. It sprawls over more than two hours of screen time, sometimes in unwieldy fashion. I never did figure why it's called "Dreamcatcher" -- the totem of the title doesn't seem to really mean anything, unless referring to the film's own strange logic.

But how many movies would dare to visualize something like Jonesy's memory warehouse? You know how people joke about having to shove some useless piece of information out of their brains to make room for new knowledge? The movie shows us Jonesy's "files" stored in a dusty library silo, with everything categorized -- old song lyrics here, sports humiliations there. It becomes a key location when one of the bad guys starts playing literal mind games with him.

I love the imagination that went into both the conception and the physical creation of the memory warehouse. The quirky sensibility that embraced it as an important facet of the movie is precisely what makes "Dreamcatcher" an unexpected treat.

Ron Weiskind can be reached at rweiskind@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1581.

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