Dream Scenario Review: Nicolas Cage Film is Floaty, Mundane and Self-Serious

The A24 film, produced by Ari Aster, is now in theatres.
Dream Scenario Review: Nicolas Cage Film is Floaty, Mundane and Self-Serious
Dream Scenario Review: Nicolas Cage Film is Floaty, Mundane and Self-Serious

Director: Kristoffer Borgli

Cast: Nicolas Cage, Julianne Nicholson, Jessica Clement, Star Slade, Lily Bird

Duration: 104 mins

Available in: Theatres

A group of zebras is called a dazzle — because they create an optical illusion with their striped bodies when they herd together. “If you stick your head out, you make yourself a target,” says Paul Mathews (Nicolas Cage), a professor of evolutionary biology at Osler University. As far as analogies go, it dances on your nose. Paul, most often referred to as “boring” till a certain point, his life a portrait of suburban normalcy, stays unremarkably camouflaged, until, out of the blue, he randomly starts showing up in people’s dreams. His Facebook inbox is full of folks who flit between mistaking his recurring appearance in their conscience as a sign to connect with him, or are suspended in a state of confusion till it becomes apparent that this is a mass phenomenon. And, it is not just distant acquaintances or strangers that are conjuring him up in their dreams — his own daughter, students and close circle of friends seem to manifest him in them as well. He asks everyone the same question: What was he doing there? The standard answer, every time, is nothing (at least, in the beginning). Paul is a passive figure who is oblivious to the happenings within the dream, even when they are specifically calling out to him for his assistance when they are being murdered or are troubled in any other particular way.

A Bystander and an Offender

Writer-director Kristoffer Borgli sets up a very interesting premise: Here is an ‘average’ middle-aged man who has unwittingly gone viral. The film deals with the dystopian pace at which images can circulate on social media, and the terrifying randomness of virality. Why is Paul Mathews showing up in people’s dreams? 

What we do know, however, is that the price of fame is the burden of becoming a public figure. Before he can grasp the context of his celebrity, Paul finds himself fully jovially immersed in this weird phenomenon, unable to separate the idea of fame from the distinctive notoriety he would like. He stokes this virality with gusto, appearing on a news platform, and then asking his full class of students (his classroom always used to be half-filled) about what he was appearing to do in their dreams. The paradox of fame — he's widely known, and yet very few really know who he is — hasn’t settled in on him yet. 

Those subjected, then haunted by Paul — initially an unassuming bystander in their dreams,  and later a nefarious offender — are individuals who are amused, aroused, and later horrified with their perceptions of him, even unable to hear the sound of his voice without feeling triggered to flee. 

Nicolas Cage as Paul Mathews in Dream Scenario
Nicolas Cage as Paul Mathews in Dream Scenario

A Banal Commentary

Nicolas Cage’s casting is a stroke of genius. Cage plays Paul with a simmering frustration, and a profound desire for more, and is brilliant at pronouncing the tragic confusion of a man who can never gap the distance between how he wants to be perceived as opposed to how others insist on characterising his influence. There’s a sprinkle of cockiness that’s easy to overdo. Instead, Paul is a carefully curated performance, with every beat measured, and executed flawlessly. In a scene where he’s shooting an apology video in the second half of the film, Cage retains Paul’s tendency to play the victim of his circumstances — his eyes never let you really feel sorry for him. Borgli quickly sets the audience up for some Adaptation (2002) style meta-commentary of the Charlie Kaufman film, where Cage played a similar role of man with a passive bent who is more comfortable surrendering agency, and doesn’t have a pulse on his own narrative. 

Borgli wants to shoehorn cancel culture into his cautionary tale on the underbelly of being an internet sensation. But there are limitations to using the popular discourse on call-out culture to explain Paul’s situation, because he is not strictly a content creator, per se, and has a comparatively small cultivated social media presence. The film highlights the impact of public perceptions in fueling outrage and questions their foundation, but what it fails to bring forward is not just viral fame that can have dangerous consequences, but also not having a script to adhere to when something so singular happens to someone, as it does to Paul. 

Paul's daughter is one of the few people in his close circle who has these bizarre dreams about him
Paul's daughter is one of the few people in his close circle who has these bizarre dreams about him

This mish-mash of internet virality, with the uniqueness of what’s happening to Paul, emits a confusing energy, where one has to tussle to make sense of the film’s fidelity. Do we want to side with Paul, a man with such a poor pulse on how an individual's agency is supposed to work? Are we supposed to sympathise with him because his attempts at exercising his own agency during the course of his virality are invariably helpless against how fast images travel, and his own fame works against him? What could have been a nuanced depiction, instead exists as a lack of clarity.

As Paul’s students begin to skip his classes because they are triggered by the man in their nightmares, he passionately voices his concerns about trauma becoming a trend. Despite the strange things that have been happening, he vehemently asserts his innocence, maintaining that he has not done anything. He is not wrong. The hate directed at him, much like his fame, is undeserved.

Fortunately for Paul, as for all of those who suffer from the wrath of the online world, virality and fame are fleeting. When a hipster content agency guy (Michael Cera) is trying to get Paul to endorse the soft drink Sprite, he says, “You are the most interesting person in the world right now.” Right now, being the key phrase. Like every fad and every trend, Paul stops appearing in people’s dreams as inexplicably as he started appearing in them.

Paul Mathews in Dream Scenario
Paul Mathews in Dream Scenario

A Wobbly Third Act

Borgli, who is also the editor, keeps the film very tight in its first two acts. There are montages that pique your interest, and jump cuts that elicit big laughs from the audience. Julianne Nicholson’s performance as the sincere but worried wife of a sudden public-figure is delicate and layered. She sticks with Paul through some of the most bizarre occurrences, so you really empathise with her when her patience begins to wear thin. Borgli’s writing lands in the first-half, the jokes work, it all seems very fresh — there’s some juvenile humour but he makes it work, too.  It is only after Borgli drops the tone of the first-half to take a more self-serious approach to his film that the chinks in Dream Scenario start to show.

The film desires to be a nuanced exploration of these absurd phenomena, a meta-commentary on social media culture, and a sharp satire on cancel culture. Unfortunately, much like a dazzle of zebras, it only seems like there could be more to it — like Borgli is trying to make a bigger point. The thesis isn’t made clear, perhaps because there isn’t one. We don’t get the answers we want, perhaps because even the makers don’t have them. But unlike carefully crafted cautionary tales, this one loses you at the end when it takes a frustrating turn. In the third act, the audience disappointingly watches the film become cringey and overt, and collapse under the unbearable weight of its massive (and fascinating) premise. 

Dream Scenario plays out like a middling Black Mirror episode in reverse, and instead of  being the cool, unnerving, biting satire that it wanted to be, it only ends up being annoying enough to elicit a polite eye roll. 

Related Stories

No stories found.