reviewed by Steve Sailer
UPI, February 21, 2002
"Dragonfly," starring Kevin Costner, is the perfect ghost story for people who don't like ghost stories because - like me - they are complete wusses about scary movies. It may be the most benign supernatural thriller since "Ghost" or Costner's own "Field of Dreams." I found "Dragonfly" to be an engaging mystery, but if you are looking for a horror flick, I'm sure you'll find "Queen of the Damned" a lot more horrible.
Costner plays a Chicago emergency room doctor deeply in love with his saintly wife, a pediatric cancer doctor (Susanna Thompson from TV's "Once and Again"). While she is doing volunteer work for the Red Cross, her bus is swept away by a mudslide. Her body is never found.
Back home in a terribly rainy Chicago, Costner is not going through the grieving process in the professional grief counselor-approved manner. Without her remains, he can't seem to move on.
(The sub-theme of the importance of recovering proof of death in "Dragonfly," "Black Hawk Down," and the upcoming "We Were Soldiers" has taken on particular resonance due to the massive effort to find remains at Ground Zero.)
In fact, Costner's friends and colleagues think he's cracking up. He keeps seeing omens that his wife is trying to get a message through to him. Real and symbolic dragonflies, his wife's favorite creature, pester him. And the children in her cancer ward have near-death experiences from which they return bearing cryptic messages to Costner from his wife.
Just when the claustrophobia of another damp night in Chicago becomes overwhelming, the movie suddenly opens up into a spectacular outdoor adventure.
"Dragonfly" is going to divide audiences more than most films. It's an easy movie to pan, but a hard movie to praise in print without giving away crucial secrets.
Its first weakness is that it's obviously jumping on "The Sixth Sense" bandwagon. And by this point, 30 months after its release, the "The Sixth Sense" fad ought to be over.
(This is more proof that modern entrepreneurial Hollywood simply can't put movie productions together as fast as the old studios, which locked away a vast array of talent under airtight contracts.)
Second, Kevin Costner is now severely out of fashion. In truth, he wasn't all that wonderful in his "Dances with Wolves" days, and he's not all that bad today.
Third, you are supposed to wonder if Costner is simply hallucinating. But casting such a Gary Cooper-like leading man made my willing suspension of disbelief a little too willing, I mean, if, say, John Malkovich announced that his long-lost wife was communicating with him via insects, I'd volunteer to kneel on his chest while you shot him up with Thorazine. But, if a fine American movie hero like Kevin Costner says so, well, dammit, then it's got to be true.
Fourth, while there are a few jump-cut shockeroos to bring gasps from the audience, "Dragonfly" generates almost zero sense of dread. Costner's wife was too angelic to do him any occult harm. The screenwriters could have created some anxiety - and added needed depth to Costner's rather flat character - by making him fear that he is being haunted as punishment for not having accompanied his wife on her charity mission.
What's good about "Dragonfly" is harder to describe persuasively, in part because Universal Pictures politely asked us critics not to let slip "any of the plot revelations that we feel are essential for the audience's full enjoyment."
I think that's reasonable. For example, I never saw the surprise ending coming, In contrast, when I got home my wife insisted upon hearing the full story. After 30 seconds of uncensored plot description from me, she guessed everything.
Ultimately, "Dragonfly" succeeds because the filmmakers play fair with the audience by strongly foreshadowing the conclusion with a rich array of allusions to it during the Chicago scenes. For example, the constant rain in Chicago is a message to Costner about where he must go. Similarly, Linda Hunt is cast as a nun not because her role demands her Oscar-winning talent, but because the wizened 4'-9" stage star is almost a dead ringer for the exotic character who reveals the final secret to Costner.
"Dragonfly" is like a rough draft by Vladimir Nabokov, the great author of "Lolita" who wrote numerous stories speculating on life after death. "Dragonfly" lacks his genius, but the screenwriters deliver a nearly Nabokovian number of symbols to prepare you for what's coming later.
Or, perhaps, "Dragonfly" resembles a calmer "Vanilla Sky," another life after death movie that heavily prefigured its surprise ending. "Vanilla Sky" was lacerated by critics and suffered a big falloff in ticket sales after its first weekend, but then quietly developed surprising legs at the box office as it found its audience. "Dragonfly" deserves to find an audience too.
It's a mild PG-13 for "thematic material and mild sensuality."