People are dreaming about Paul Matthews (Nicolas Cage). People who know him and those who don’t – there’s no pattern, he’s everywhere, at first as a passive observer to the dreamers’ fantasies of catastrophe, which suggest, resonantly, that people in this fraught age matter-of-factly nurse intuitions of the apocalypse. It’s amusing at first. A lot of “haven’t I seen you somewhere?” An ex-girlfriend comes out of the woodwork, to the consternation of Paul’s wife, Janet (Julianne Nicholson). The students in Paul’s classroom, for he teaches animal something-or-another at the local university, start to pay more attention to his lectures. Acquaintances once too good for him begin to take interest. And, since our society must monetize everything, agents and advertisers come calling.
In “Dream Scenario,” writer-director Kristoffer Borgli has found a simple and potent metaphor for how social media conditions us to crave stardom, and for how that craving is ruthlessly exploited by corporations. While we’re trying to be the cool kids online, voicing the right political platitudes and sharing those idealized pics from our trip to Hawaii, corporations are mining our viewing preferences and fashioning an ever-perpetuating fantasy realm of ads and pre-fab opinions that keep us clicking and buying and occupied. Paul becomes famous by accident, as if God decreed that he’s to be the next social media sensation, without him having to tap dance for followers. Of course, Paul is flattered. He’s a schlub, a failure who dreamed of writing a book about ants or something, or, more likely, who dreamed of having such a dream, as it sounds “distinguished.” While he’s mulling about, a colleague turned his theories into an actual project.
The first hour of “Dream Scenario” is a nearly perfect little black comedy. Borgli’s scenes are loose and behavioral, giving Cage plenty of room to riff, but they also have a drive, as they are sculpted towards punchlines that have a sting. When Paul takes offense to being always the passive witness in people’s dreams, an ex says “Oh, you’re still doing that? Always looking for the insult?” Her casual, resentful insight lands because Borgli doesn’t highlight it too much – it’s heard among a variety of other loaded half-insults. The early portions of this movie swim with such associations. When a young woman wishes to recreate a sex fantasy with Paul, potentially realizing one of the classic fantasies of many aging, frustrated men felt put to pasture, his nerves and timidity short-circuit him in ways that are too good, and too uncomfortably truthful, to reveal.
It’s impossible to watch “Dream Scenario” and not think of Spike Jonze and Charlie Kaufman’s 2002 “Adaptation,” another self-conscious film with a high concept that featured Nicolas Cage as an anxious intellectual schmuck. For a while, Borgli’s film is easier to take, as it isn’t burdened with Kaufman’s narcissism – his determination that you recognize his cleverness every second of every scene. Borgli is less sentimental about his Nic Cage character than Jonze and Kaufman, and Cage, easily one of the most malleable and adventurous of our working icons, feels empowered by his director’s chilly sensibility. The pleasant surprise of “Dream Scenario” is that the concept of Cage as a living metaphorical meme isn’t the entire movie, as it was in that thing he did with Pedro Pascal a couple of years back, or in this year’s abominable “Renfield.” Cage is given room to do real character work here, and he gives one of the best performances of his career. Cage has always been peerless at playing schmucks, stylizing them enough to give them a comic majesty without skimping on the pathos or going maudlin.
Borgli has another idea here as well, and it harks back to his previous movie, “Sick of Myself,” which was released in America earlier this year. As Paul reaches peak social saturation, people inevitably turn on him, having dreams in which he is a violent maniac. We see bits of these dreams, which suggest that Borgli has considerable talent as a horror filmmaker if and when he decides to take the plunge. Anyway, Paul is ostracized for these dreams, blamed for actions he hasn’t committed. Blamed for perception, in other words, without a shred of proof of wrongdoing. Borgli’s got cancel culture on his mind, and the way that social media and corporate culture condition younger folks to fetishize trauma. If you find my characterization triggering, you don’t want to see “Dream Scenario.” “Sick of Myself” hunted similar game, following a young woman who purposefully made herself violently ill and became a spokesperson for a brand looking to highlight its body diversity.
Borgli is not anti-empathy, but anti-unquestionably gobbling down capitalism’s methods of utilizing socio-political trends for manipulation. Conditioning us to be triggered by everything render us an ideal society for controlling. This is Borgli’s ongoing subject so far, and my guess is that he’s got a masterpiece in him. “Sick of Myself” and “Dream Scenario” are nice tries, but they’re too eager to land their points. As Paul becomes a pariah, “Dream Scenario” grows repetitive, getting stuck in a shrill holding pattern. The ending is heartbreaking though, showing Cage’s everyman as he drifts away, forgotten by his society; a prophecy foretold by his daughter in the film’s opening scene. Until this moment, Borgli loses sight of that humanity for a long stretch, forgetting why we’re so eager to be famous and thusly so easily manipulated by monopolies into following the trends du jour: We’re desperate, perhaps due to our very genetic codes, to be noticed.
Sitting through John Woo’s “Silent Night,” his first American film in 20 years, it occurred to me that Woo’s Hollywood heyday only lasted 10 years, from 1993’s blissfully deranged “Hard Target” through to 2003’s blah Ben Affleck thriller “Paycheck.” It felt so much longer and more substantial than that at the time, though that was a big 10-years for me, as I went from ascendant 8th grader to college graduate. So many transitions packed over the course of Woo’s romance with Hollywood. That says something existential about how the passage of time is colored by our memories, or perhaps it’s just a testament to how bored I was with “Silent Night.” As the film trudged on, I also wondered what I might do for lunch today, and if my Christmas shopping for a special someone was complete.
Woo will always have my respect for his 1992 Hong Kong film “Hard Boiled,” one of the greatest and most poetic of all action pictures, and even for the poignant lunacy of “Face/Off,” an absurd blend of sci-fi and farce that allowed John Travolta to play an elaborate game of charades with, yes, Nicolas Cage. But “Silent Night,” to paraphrase a joke on “The Simpsons,” is an example of “misdirected Woo.” It’s a bucket of anonymous vigilante shlock with an occasional bird or blast of slow-mo or freeze frame to remind us that, yes, somehow, this is a John Woo joint.
Joel Kinnaman, a solid actor with vibes of Peter Greene who can’t find a decent American vehicle to save his life, plays, um, sigh, Godlock, a normal dude, I guess, who loses his son to a stray bullet fired in the midst of Mexican cartel warfare in Los Angeles. Godlock gives pursuit and their leader, I guess, named, um, sigh, Playa (Harold Torres), shoots him in the throat, rendering Godlock speechless and thusly justifying the film’s gimmick: there’s no dialogue here, as in last summer’s “No One Will Save You.” I know that these filmmakers believe this device to be purely cinematic. I believe it to be what it is: a gimmick, one that in these cases goes from annoying to unbearable in a matter of seconds.
We have a film called “Silent Night” that has little dialogue and pivots on two Christmas holidays. One may think that Woo might have fun with so much literal-mindedness and one would be mistaken. Killers killing against lurid neon Christmas lights as Christmas carols in the background ironically connote joy in the air – the old Woo would have had a field day with the poetic possibilities of these associations. The present Woo spends 60 of the film’s 104 minutes on set-up, eventually springing a solid hand-to-hand combat scene that’s nowhere near the level of a similar sequence in David Fincher’s “The Killer” (itself named after another good Woo movie). Otherwise, there’s the usual salad of gunfights and car chases and racism. It’s all so low rent, so disposable, so Lionsgate direct-to-video.
Absurdities abound. Godlock learns how to be an action hero from YouTube, putting his grief and alcoholism aside to get cut and practice military maneuvers. This detail is worth savoring: Yes, he learns how to be an unstoppable killer from online courses. Why, oh why is that detail not offered with tongue firmly in cheek? Such a missed opportunity. Godlock also keeps a calendar with notes for his plans, which also suggest jokes that never intentionally materialize. “Start gang war?” is one such note—seriously. His to-do for Christmas is to “Kill them all.” This Santa is making his list and checking it twice. Several critics have decided to judge Woo on a bell curve here out of nostalgia, but “Silent Night” shows that his imitators have far surpassed him. There’s no reason to watch “Silent Night” in the theaters when “The Killer” and “John Wick 4” are streaming, rendering our blood lusts into decadent cinematic verse.
“Dream Scenario” opens at Movieland today, while “Silent Night” is in theaters everywhere.