Dream Scenario (2023, dir. Kristoffer Borgli)

by | Nov 9, 2023

Certificate: 15

Running Time: 102 mins

UK Distributor: Entertainment Film Distributors

UK Release Date: 10 November 2023

WHO’S IN DREAM SCENARIO?

Nicolas Cage, Julianne Nicholson, Michael Cera, Tim Meadows, Dylan Gelula, Dylan Baker, Kate Berlant, Lily Bird, Jessica Clement, Cara Volchoff, Noah Centineo, Nicholas Braun, Amber Midthunder, Lily Gao

WHO’S BEHIND THE CAMERA?

Kristoffer Borgli (director, writer, editor), Ari Aster, Tyler Campellone, Jacob Jaffke and Lars Knudsen (producers), Benjamin Loeb (cinematographer)

WHAT’S IT ABOUT?

A mild-mannered professor (Cage) becomes an overnight celebrity when he begins appearing in peoples’ dreams…

WHAT ARE MY THOUGHTS ON DREAM SCENARIO?

If they ever did try and reboot the Nightmare on Elm Street franchise (again), writer-director Kristoffer Borgli’s Dream Scenario is one hell of an argument for not just the filmmaker but also its star, the incomparable Nicolas Cage, to take over from the late Wes Craven and the newly-retired Robert Englund as director and Freddy Krueger respectively.

Anyone who’s seen Borgli’s equally shocking Norwegian satire Sick of Myself will know that the filmmaker isn’t afraid to go to some truly messed-up places, which could make for some memorable set-pieces within the dreamy contexts of the horror series, and as for Cage… well, it’s honestly shocking that nobody previously thought to put an actor like him who can be funny and intimidating (sometimes all at once) in the role of cinema’s most popular child murderer.

While Dream Scenario is a formidable case for this creative team to revitalise the classic horror franchise, the rest of the film is an intriguing ride that confounds more than it provokes, though that doesn’t stop it from also going to some strange corners in generally entertaining fashion.

The film is about Paul Matthews (Nicolas Cage), an unremarkable middle-aged college professor who lives a fairly normal life with his wife Janet (Julianne Nicholson) and their daughters Sophie (Lily Bird) and Hannah (Jessica Clement). All of a sudden, Paul begins appearing in people’s dreams, in which he doesn’t really do anything except observe the dreamer during their imagined scenarios, but it’s enough to propel Paul to the attention of the masses, turning him into a (literal) overnight celebrity. However, the dreams – and Paul within them – start becoming more violent and terrifying, with people suddenly viewing Paul as a condemnable figure, even though in reality he has done nothing to warrant such visceral hatred from the masses.

It is pretty obvious that Borgli’s main target in this film is modern celebrity culture, and the fickle public opinion that dictates who can and can’t be a beloved figure at a moment’s notice. As he did in Sick of Myself, which similarly tackled the narcissistic tendencies one might exploit in order to gain clout in the social media age, Borgli opts for a dark and often uncomfortable angle from which he presents his thinly-veiled allegory, especially when Cage’s Paul becomes a pariah as quickly as he become a folk hero.

It is pretty brutal in its presentation of cancel culture, and how unwarranted it can be for people who, as far as is known, have not committed any heinous crimes, except in the minds of those who deem a person to be bad for no discernible reason. Honestly, I found this to be a slightly more engaging depiction of cancel culture than Tár, which was perhaps denser and a bit more up its own pretence than Dream Scenario, which opts for darkly comedic satire from the off and rarely ever lets go of its original intentions.

The direction and writing collectively keep a steady pace as Borgli takes the viewer on this uncomfortable journey with Paul, as he goes from nobody to somebody to nobody again in a short period of time, and has his life unjustly ransacked in the process. Borgli does not let up with his harsh social commentary, in particular with how fame and public misconception of said famous person can lead to lives and relationships being completely destroyed.

Cage, meanwhile, puts in a transformative performance that’s not as wild as you may be expecting, but is still nuanced and deeply human as the actor embodies this realistically goofy persona who grows understandably more frustrated as the world suddenly turns against him.

It’s a tone and performance you’d expect to find in an Ari Aster film – a fitting comparison, as Aster is actually a producer on the film – but under Borgli’s direction, it’s focused well enough to make for an interesting story told from start to finish. That being said, there are times when the commentary tends to become a bit too on-the-nose, to where it removes any semblance of subtlety to get its message across.

Also, while there are plenty of amusing moments throughout – from Cage’s many random dream appearances to a painfully awkward sexual encounter that takes home invasion roleplay to creepy new levels – I never found the film hugely funny, at least not enough to justify some of the more shocking moments that happen later on.

Then again, I suppose the point is that we’re not supposed to laugh, either at or with the film. Like Sick of Myself, Dream Scenario is a pitch-black satire about the modern human condition that is designed to make the viewer feel wholly uncomfortable as they watch it. In that regard, both of Borgli’s films succeed, even if it’s at the expense of a completely satisfying viewing experience.

Here, though, if this doesn’t land either Borgli or Cage the gig of revitalising the Nightmare on Elm Street franchise, then nothing will.

SO, TO SUM UP…

Dream Scenario is an amusingly uncomfortable pitch-black satire about the nature of modern celebrity culture, and the sometimes-unjustified shift in fickle public opinion, which filmmaker Kristoffer Borgli tells with harsh, if occasionally on-the-nose, social commentary along with a nuanced lead turn by Nicolas Cage.

Three out of five stars

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