Nicolas Cage is no stranger to leading films with strange and fascinating premises. His newest film, Dream Scenario, is an ideal fit for someone of his quirks. Cage plays Paul Matthews, a professor in evolutionary biology. He earns a decent wage and lives a good if mundane life with his wife (Julianne Nicholson) and two daughters Sophie and Hannah (Lily Bird and Jessica Clement respectively). What he really wants is to write a renowned book, but he struggles with a lack of motivation. Paul is typically viewed as insignificant – someone who occupies space in the background of other people’s lives.
This sentiment starts to manifest itself, literally, as thousands of random people across the world start to have dreams where Paul is present. He doesn’t do anything of significance in these dreams – he just passes through passively. This bizarre phenomenon gains media traction to the point where Paul guests on blogs and is even interviewed on the news, becoming a popular viral sensation. Yet fame that emerges so suddenly will have an inevitable comedown if things go awry, something that Paul is ill prepared for.
Dream Scenario marks the English language feature debut for Norwegian director Kristoffer Borgli, best known for morbid comedies like 2022’s Sick of Myself. He makes the transition to English speaking pictures seamlessly, while not abandoning the calling cards that make him such a unique director – most notably a willingness to be as unrelenting as possible. Dream Scenario’s title is an ironic one, as Borgli uses the premise to explore the consequences of sudden exposure, but of which Paul never asked for but does desire to at least some degree. Borgli examines what happens to one’s self-image when thrust into the spotlight so suddenly, and when that goes wrong, what lasting harm is left?
Ari Aster served as a co-producer on the film, and it is easy to see his influence here. The rich atmosphere cultivated drips with idiosyncratic oddness, playing out similarly to that of a dream state, where one can find themselves quickly shifting into a different tonal gear at any moment. When students, friends and strangers describe the dreams they have of Paul to him, the film visually portrays them – depicting a vast array of scenarios such as a car crash or an earthquake in which Paul happens to be present. This not only makes for some creative experimentation in how Paul is perceived by others, but enhances the initial joviality found in Benjamin Leob’s grainy cinematography, which frames the entire film as though it is one big dream. In a way it is – Paul’s life is joyous when he becomes the marvel of the internet, but fads fad and circumstances change. Suddenly someone who was once adored can quickly become detested.
As Paul’s sudden fame deepens his insecurities and anger, the dreams start to change and he soon finds himself a source of revulsion where once he was doted on. One could interpret this as a commentary on cancel culture, a term that does come up a few times in the film. It’s a prickly topic of discussion on both sides of the political spectrum, primarily as some – mainly right-wingers – like to conflate accountability for xenophobic and or bullying behaviour with cancellation, thus attempting to excuse abhorrent actions that deserve to be reprimanded. However, dog-piling, faux-outrage, and haughty displays of self-righteousness are a problem, particularly towards those who may make a mistake but don’t have the status or resources to defend or explain themselves properly – actions which left-wingers can be just as guilty of as their political counterparts. When the dreams begin to change for the worse, Paul finds himself squarely in the middle of such a scenario.
In telling a story of how Paul, an insignificant man who secretly wanted to be significant, gets fame and loses it through factors that are largely out of his control, Dream Scenario is exploring the nightmarish realities of pop culture’s fickle attachment to trends. Something that was once celebrated and worshipped can very quickly be vitriolically shunned, especially if the loudest voices in the room are calling for it to be shunned. Disgust or anger towards public figures can of course be warranted – look no further than Suella Braverman and her deplorable rhetoric surrounding immigrants – but when the wider context occupies a grey area or is even unknown to the public, as is the case with Paul, the displays of both love and hate can quickly seem grotesque.
Borgli captures the unsightly nature of his setup, and its eventual turn, marvellously. The once absurd but euphoric visuals gradually become more melancholic, be it through the slow chipping away of people surrounding Paul or the winter colours incorporated into the lighting. The feeling of unease born from this works because it maintains empathy regarding its protagonist and his family, even as he childishly milks his new recognition. Nicolas Cage is best known for his explosive mega-acting, be it Matchstick Men or Vampire’s Kiss, yet he can also deliver sensitive nuanced portrayals of emotional intricacy, such as 2021’s underrated Pig. Dream Scenario is a uniquely reserved performance for Cage, other than the few moments where outbursts are warranted. Cage captures the elation and fear of being thrust into the spotlight with tender sadness, creating a character whose headspace we can relate to, amplifying the resonance to each twist and turn of the narrative.
Dream Scenario could be viewed as a cautionary tale on fame, a damning indictment of herd mentality, or both simultaneously. That a case could be made for any is a testament to Borgli’s direction and the engrossing way he handles a subject that could easily have become gratuitous or caricatured in the hands of someone more narrow minded. The end result is a tragicomedy that, while perhaps overstuffed in some of its ideas – a sudden ad break towards a piece of technology that allows for the climax comes to mind here – satires the contemporary habits it captures with humour and sadness alike. Where the dramatic punch of Sick of Myself came from the shameless awfulness of its protagonist, Dream Scenario instead brims with humanity.
Dream Scenario is in cinemas November 10th
Director: Kristoffer Borgli
Writer: Kristoffer Borgli
Stars: Nicholas Cage, Julianne Nicholson, Michael Cera, Tim Meadows, Dylan Gelula, Dylan Baker
Runtime: 100 minutes