Hollywood has always been half in love with easeful death. Dying has its attraction, cinematically speaking, seeing as how it's so good for so many things -- heightening dramatic tension, eliminating unruly characters, jerking a few tears and snagging a few awards nominations along the way, if done correctly. Lately, though, we seem to have moved on to the deeper, more eternal question of what happens after all that.
Before Tinseltown gets too much collective credit for coming to the stunning realization that its inhabitants and audiences actually possess souls (at least, most of them do), let's remember that supernatural sells. The Holy Grail of this newest spiritual quest is the next X-Files or Sixth Sense, loftier ontological pursuits be damned.
And so it's a mix-and-match movie afterlife. Door No. 1 might reveal little more than a great, big Nothing, but rest assured you won't be too worried, as your ravishingly attractive self simply melts away to swelling music and sugar-coated dialogue. When death becomes you, who's worried about the hereafter? Door No. 2 offers business as usual, a blissful, momentary ignorance of your metaphysical metamorphosis soon followed by a dramatic realization. And, finally, there is door No. 3, behind which you'll at least have a clue, but won't be very happy about it and so will insist on wreaking one last bit of havoc before you go.
It is into the last category that Dr. Emily Darrow of Dragonfly falls. A pregnant doctor who has traveled to the jungles of Venezuela to relieve a little of the world's suffering, Emily (Once and Again's Susanna Thompson) finds herself caught up in that country's political convulsions and is killed in a bus accident on a lonely mountain road. She leaves behind grieving doctor husband Joe (Kevin Costner) -- or does she?
Six months after her death, Joe isn't doing very well. He's traveled down to South America in a frustrated attempt to recover her body and come back home to Chicago only to anesthetize himself with slavish hours in trauma and triage work. When not at work, he wanders the empty shell of a house he shared with Emily, reliving memories good and bad and generally just atrophying emotionally. That's when the weird stuff starts to happen.
Emily collected images of dragonflies to match a birthmark on her shoulder. Suddenly, a dragonfly paperweight goes crashing off the bedstand in the middle of the night. Real, live dragonflies start showing up at the window. The pet parrot that would only talk to Emily squawks a familiar greeting in the middle of the night. Strangest of all, patients in the hospital's children's oncology ward who have had near-death experiences come back and tell Joe that they have seen Emily and that she is trying to contact him; they all obsessively draw the same squiggly cross and tell him he has to go there. The squiggle starts showing up in other places. The paranormal pressure builds.
Needless to say, Joe starts to freak out. He is suddenly not so much grief-stricken, as awestruck. He wants to believe, but keeps telling himself not to, a refrain echoed by cynical coworkers and a well-intentioned, worried neighbor (Kathy Bates). Simply put, Joe is any one of us if this started happening in our world. And, blessed be director Tom Shadyac, Costner is the man for this particular job.
The veteran of Bull Durham and Wyatt Earp is not a man known for the strength of his acting. What he lacks in talent, however, he makes up for with something equally valuable: screen presence. He is a big man on a big canvas, less an actor than a star. Gary Cooper was like this; with varying degrees of ability, so were John Wayne and Gregory Peck. They are everymen to the nth degree, a little wooden and a lot human, capable of a strong performance or two but "actors" for whom the word "craft" will always have more to do with mac and cheese than anything else.
That said, Costner is better here than he has been in a drama for a rather long time (perhaps since Field of Dreams), and he holds together this less-than-perfect movie by providing a steady, believable center. Shadyac (Patch Adams) confirms the suspicion that he's out of his depth, although not terminally so; while much about Dragonfly's mood seems tentative, he does show that he knows how to stand back on occasion and let the existential creepiness sink in.
At the end of the day, however, Dragonfly substitutes any substantial life-and-death philosophy with the fuzzy-headed New Age platitude that perhaps all we have to do is will ourselves into a happy afterlife. The movie's central question is why that didn't work for Emily Darrow, which turns out to be an affecting yet predictable exercise. If you pay anything remotely resembling close attention, you'll see the end of this one coming, but thanks to a competent Costner performance, you won't mind.
- Dr. Joe Darrow (Kevin Costner) contemplates the hereafter -- courtesy of a few visits from his dearly not-so-departed wife -- in Dragonfly.