If Ari Aster really wants to continue expectorating his excruciating sick-twist fare all over us, typically revolving around tortured inadequates encroached upon by grisly darkness, perhaps he should make the story of Nicolas Cage as told by Donald Marshall, whereby the actor was Vril’d sometime around 2011. In which case, we’ve been subjected to a pretty versatile clone on screen for at least the past three or four years. I guess Aster, at least, isn’t blowing the bank on Dream Scenario the way he did with Beau is Afraid. This is also an A24 picture, but they might even make a dime on it this time, depending on its price tag. It’s had a modest box-office reception and broad critical approval, what with its idiosyncratic take on cancel culture and the perils of peripheral fame, but I found it a typically misanthropic thud, Kristoffer Borgli – as writer and director – adopting the heightened (fantasy-horror, queasy humour) Aster key notes and replicating them to resigned and increasingly tiresome effect.
The premise is winning – what if someone began appearing in multiple people’s dreams – but Borgli takes the fantastic in a resolutely pedestrian direction by reducing it to an exploration of the cause and effect of (repeatedly invoked) cancel culture to the exclusion of anything else that’s interesting about that winning premise. The commentary swallows Dream Scenario up in the name of dragging the audience through the dirt.
Evolutionary biology professor Paul Matthews (Cage, in one of his insecure-introvert/dweeb-given-to-intermittent-explosive-rage performances, complete with rugless pate) seizes, ineptly, the chance to make capital from his surprising fame when he uncannily begins appearing in the nocturnal imaginings of people across the world. He’s evidently been nursing resentment at being unfulfilled in his career, personified by a former fellow student getting published for her research while he repeatedly talks up a book he hasn’t even begun writing (this is evidently, in telegraphed form, a nod towards fame for reasons entirely unrelated to any talent or skill). Consequently, Paul’s portrayed as his own worst enemy, his insistence and wilfulness leading to irreparable fissures within his family. He is, of course, entirely innocent of imposing himself on others’ lives, so when his participants’ dreams turn nasty, whereby “he” is perpetrating depraved acts upon them, it’s entirely unfair, particularly so that their reactions are aggrandised into feelings of extreme grievance and trauma. He hasn’t, after all, done anything. Has he?
Dream Scenario scuttles itself by jumping through hoops to ground its fantasy scenario; it wants to squeeze everything it has to say into a cancel-culture/celebrity commentary. “You know, fame can come with some less desirable side effects” Paul’s dean (Tim Meadows) tells him. And lo and behold. If something like this actually happened, do you think the consequences would be limited to Paul’s vilification as an aggressor and everyone else as his victim, such that, like clockwork, Borgli can namecheck – sorry, I know I keep repeating the phrase – cancel culture, and have Paul respond indignantly “Trauma is a brand these days. It’s a joke. Everything is a trauma”?
And so we have his PR guy (Michael Cera), who likes to “holistically pair brands and more unconventional celebrities”, try to line him up with those (theoretically) sympathetic to the cancelled: the alt-right such as Jordan Peterson, an appear on Joe Rogan, or an interview by Tucker Carlson. Plus, for extra cheap yuks, drop in that he’s really big in France (“for some reason, they love you”). Paul’s wife (Julianne Nicholson) is told “You know, I’m against cancel culture and all that, but…” by the colleague giving her the chop. And the biggest irony: Paul is your classic emasculated male, so humiliatingly without agency of his own, he even took his wife’s name.
There’s doubtless some further sledgehammer subtlety with Paul’s pet thesis of “Antintelligence” and the hive mind, in terms of responses to “his” behaviour, but the picture wants to wring every drop of “satire” from Paul’s non-action actions: “Obviously, I have to take the students’ concerns seriously too” his dean tells him, before adding that he will need to consult with HR. “I don’t want to be some culture-war person” insists Paul while stubbornly getting himself into situations of being beaten up (after his attacker has spits on his food), being videoed having a meltdown regarding his graffiti-sprayed car or releasing an embarrassing not-really-apology video; Borgli, like Aster, is expressly intent on Paul’s complete collapse, even as he’s too remote to feel other than embarrassment (rather than empathy) over his actions; it has to escalate, so in that sickly comedy-horror way, Paul succeeds in actually hurting someone (unintentionally), thus compounding his sins.
In a sense, Dream Scenario bears comparison to The Banshees of Inisherin; if you want to ride with the central conceit, you have to throw internal logic out of the window. If something like this happened, Paul wouldn’t be continuing with his life in the way he does; he’d be in the lap of the government, being studied and probed as an extraordinary phenomenon (providing, of course, they weren’t doing it to him in the first place). But that would be upbeat, or at least interesting.
Borgli throws in a frankly insulting late-stage development of Paul’s experience leading to the discovery of a shared dream subconscious and Brian Berg (Nicholas Braun of Succession) developing tech “Dream House” that can facilitate shared dreams. It’s a random choice, but it does at least serve to underline that the fantastic side of the scenario’s repercussions has been completely sidestepped: the absurdity of avoiding the absurd premise. Indeed, Paul’s earlier “But I’m always inclined to think, rationally, that anything supernatural has to be socially constructed” rather encapsulates the entire movie, one that starts out with talk of a “sort of dream version of the Mandela Effect” and “astral projections” but quickly sheds any such speculation for torpid satire (“For a period, going to sleep meant visiting abuse from this man”).
If we’re to focus on the context of Dream Scenario and its conceit, then the implication is that Paul is culpable, despite his protestations (all Aster protagonists are their own worst enemies and ultimately responsible for their inevitable spiritual degradation). In which case, the satirical context is either forfeit – Paul’s justly accused, so the only cancel-culture commentary is that those in the spotlight always have fire preceding the smoke – or desperately flimsy in attempting to use this as an analogy (one might read that those dreaming of Paul parallel the masses passing judgement on someone they have never met, lacking any direct experience of the same).
It’s only after Paul encounters someone (a particularly excruciating “date” with Dylan Gelula’s Molly) who dreamt of him sexually that the previously passive dream presence becomes more pervasively sexual, and it’s only after his anger over this (and publishing snubs) that his dream persona turns violent; with the shared-dream tech discovery, the verdict becomes bewilderment that Paul should have “harnessed all of this power just so he could terrorise people”. In which case, Dream Scenario is, in a sense, only expounding what the Seth Material points out, that dreams are as real in their way as the lived experience (but only in their way). However, the manner in which it delivers this message is abjectly nihilistic and despondent, and further, it mistakes poking around at hinting and suggesting as somehow satisfying; instead, the picture reveals itself as garbled (where it isn’t clear) and slightly puerile (where it is).