This surrealist fantasy-satire follows unremarkable university professor Paul Matthews, played by Nicolas Cage. He has a stable career, a beautiful house, and a loving wife and family. But privately, Matthews is deeply frustrated with his lack of publications and is resentful of the success of his former colleagues. However, overnight Matthews starts inexplicably popping up in everyone’s dreams, globally.
Ari Aster is credited as a producer, and it is in these tense and twisted dream sequences that his creative influence is most pervasive. Paul Matthews’ dull, unexceptional persona is consistently emphasised, making his status shift from an NPC in his own life to a global cameo star hilariously ironic.
What peeves Matthews most about these dreams is that in all of them, no matter how peculiar or extreme, he appears incapable of taking action. Acting as a refraction of his decades-long unfulfilled academic ambitions, even in strangers’ dream visions Matthews is incapable of taking initiative. He just idly hangs about in peoples’ dreams like a boring middle-aged Freddy Krueger. This leads Matthews to attempt to leverage his newfound fame to revive his stagnant career by securing a publishing deal for his not-yet-started book.
Matthews’ unexpected rise to fame brings with it a host of painfully embarrassing moments that will leave you squirming in your seat. Cage is outstanding in this authentically awkward performance and, as an audience, we are dared to laugh at Matthews’ misfortunes. Matthews is most certainly not a likeable guy, but he is not a villain by any means. However, it is his unfortunate destiny to unwittingly embody this pseudo-Freddy Krueger role as the public’s dreams of him morph into something much more sinister.
As the film takes this dark turn, Borgli squeezes existential dread out of each scene, playing on personal anxieties. Whilst watching, I was assailed by so many conflicting feelings that I believe I may have experienced the full spectrum of human emotion. At times I had to stifle my laughter and at others, I felt so intensely disturbed and anxious that I could hardly watch. Never did I think there would be a time I genuinely laughed at a fart joke in a film, but here we are…
In the final act of the film, its message morphs from a commentary on parasocial relationships to one on cancel culture, and this is where I feel it starts to lose its steam a little. The filmlike grain and the cinematographic aesthetic of Dream Scenario are timeless, however, the film’s reactionary quality has the potential to date it as time passes. The final TikTok marketing and product-placement commentary gag falls a little flat for me and its lack of future relevance could render it a product of its time.
Ultimately, this is a film about the fickleness of fame and the total lack of control we have over how we are perceived by others. Cage does a brilliant job of portraying this pitifully unprepared man as we watch him stumble down a dark path of self-destruction at the hands of fame. Despite its tonal confusion, Dream Scenario is a surprisingly moving, unconventional gem of a film and I couldn’t recommend it enough.