As part of our coverage of the 48th annual Toronto International Film Festival, Meg Shields reviews ‘Dream Scenario,’ the Ari Aster-produced absurdist satire for the terminally online. Follow along with more coverage in our Toronto International Film Festival archives.
Paul Matthews’ life may be quiet, but there are greater indignities in life than being boring. But it’s undeniable. As a father, husband, and academic, Paul is remarkably unremarkable. Heck, even when he shows up in his daughter’s dreams, he isn’t really doing anything. He’s just kind of there: an inoffensive, aggressively neutral presence. How fitting.
Then, for reasons no one is capable of explaining, Paul starts showing up in everybody’s dreams. Suddenly he’s getting invitations to coveted dinner parties; his classroom is more lively than ever, and that book deal he’s always wanted starts to look more and more like a reality.
Thrust into the spotlight for something he has no power over, Paul tries to make the best of the unexpected attention. Then, when he unwisely betrays his family man image with some grade-a poor decision making, everyone’s dreams start to shift. Now appearing as a nightmarish, menacing figure in the public’s subconscious, Paul is suddenly a pariah. He didn’t ask for any of this. And he’s not handling it especially well. But then again, who would?
Dream Scenario marks the English-language debut of Kristoffer Borgli, who, following 2022’s Sick of Myself, is quickly becoming a creative authority on absurdist horror about the attention economy and the fickle, silly, and genuinely terrifying ways that celebrities rise, fall, and atrophy in the 21st Century. We live in an age where normal folks accidentally attract the all-seeing eye of the internet only to be “milkshake ducked” into the shadow realm. The Old Testament’s Job had the incomprehensible ire of God. We have Twitter.
Dream Scenario attempts to chart that disorienting experience without coming down too firmly on any side of the implied culture war. And to its credit, the film is wise to employ a ridiculous parable to unpack such a well-known modern social phenomenon. These slingshots in and out of grace happen online all the time; each one more radioactive and context-specific than the last. Handling such a potentially volatile topic with metaphorical gloves was absolutely the right call. The film’s decision to frame Nicolas Cage’s Paul as no saint, albeit undeserving of his vilification, was also far more compelling than any reductive alternative.
Speaking of which: it is an irony-drenched shame that the crunchiest bit of Dream Scenario is likely to sail over the heads of certain Cage fans like a frisbee. At the film’s post-premiere Q&A, Cage stressed that his interest in being in the film stemmed from his real-life experience with losing control of his image. As anyone even tangentially online will remember, Cage has been a meme since (at least) the early 2010s, when a viral montage of his best on-screen freak-outs blew up… for lack of a better term. “Nothing I could do could stop it,” the actor shared with the TIFF audience. “I said, well, I’ve got to put this somewhere. And then I read Dream Scenario and I said, yes, now I can turn this lead into a little bit of gold.”
Cage is someone with first-hand experience losing significant parts of himself to the collective dream of the internet. At my screening (a press and industry screening, mind you), the actor’s mere presence on-screen was enough to elicit boisterous hoots and hollers. All the man had to do was wiggle his finger and a certain pocket of the crowd went wild. What were they laughing at, I wonder? Was it with, or against Cage? If pressed, would they be able to tell the difference?
At the risk of sounding like a spoilsport, it’s disheartening to watch one of our most interesting actors being dehumanized and laughed at just for existing. And it’s a shame that Dream Scenario loses that focus at various points to poke topical bears (“what if TikTok houses had access to Inception technology to promote brand deals?”). This lack of thematic clarity does leave the film feeling a bit toothless. And if the film does have a thesis, it’s that Paul, while not without sin, is undeserving of his vilification. In this instance, at least, the punishment does not fit the crime.
All told, Dream Scenario is much more engaging and visually inventive than its provocative premise might lead you to believe. And while I dare not spoil all of the film’s secrets, I will leave you with a hint regarding the film’s genuinely touching concluding moments: if you’re worried that the Stop Making Sense name drop early in the film was just a pandering pop culture reference… there is a pay off. I promise. And it’s easily one of the sweetest (and goofiest) visuals to come out of the festival.
Dream Scenario is currently slated for a release date of November 10, 2023.