Stir of Echoes - Internet Movie Database Nitrate Online Review
Contents | Features | Reviews | Books | Archives | Store
Stir of Echoes - Nitrate Online Store
Movie Credits Buy It!

Stir of Echoes

Review by Cynthia Fuchs
Posted 10 September 1999

Stir of Echoes

 Directed by David Koepp 

Starring Kevin Bacon, 
Kathryn Erbe, Illeana Douglas, 
Liza Weil, Kevin Dunn, 
Conor O'Farrell, Jenny Morrison, 
Zachary David Cope, Lisa Lewis, 
and Eddie Bo Smith Jr. 

Written by David Koepp 
based on a novel by 
Richard Matheson 

"You're not supposed to mesmerize someone who's been drinking." So warns Lisa (Illeana Douglas), when her brother-in-law Tom Witzky (Kevin Bacon) asks her to hypnotize him. Being hard-headed, a little bored with his working-class life, and full of beer at a neighborhood party, he doesn't heed the warning. Good thing, because now Stir of Echoes, written and directed by David Koepp and based on Richard Matheson's 1958 novel, can proceed.

This proceeding is premised on Joe's dim-bulb existence. He's a regular joe who works as a telephone company lineman, living in a blue-collar Chicago area. He's got a supportive wife named Maggie (Kathryn Erbe, the terrifically manipulative death row inmate in Oz) and a bright, cute kid named Jake (six-commercial veteran Zachary David Cope). He seems to have everything he wants within easy reach, like his friends who are also his neighbors Frank (Kevin Dunn) and Harry (Conor O'Farrell). And yet, all this stability seems to be making Tom restless. While he assures Maggie that he's a "happy guy," he's clearly not thrilled with his lot in life. "I never wanted to be famous," he sighs. "I just didn't expect to be so ordinary." These would be, as they say, famous last words.

Tom's decision to be hypnotized looks like a reaction to his ordinariness. And indeed, the experience send him into some other realm, cornily marked by a literal image of Lisa's invocation (he's in a movie theater, he's floating toward the screen, he sees words on the screen, yadda yadda). As if this hokiness isn't enough, following the hypnosis, Tom begins to suffer some peculiar traumas, like incapacitating headaches and violent visions. He sees scary fragments of images, nothing he can recognize exactly, something like memories, only they're not his own, they're someone else's. These images are effectively taut and sketchy, hard to read and accompanied by a predictably spooky soundtrack. The film also makes the requisite-to-be-self-conscious inside jokes, too, associating Tom's apparitions with well-known pop-cultural images of alienation and mayhem via movies on background televisions, like The Incredible Shrinking Man and Night of the Living Dead.

But such cleverness soon turns ugly, and then worse, it turns trite. As seems to be the fashion these days, Tom sees dead people. More precisely, he sees a girl with creepy red wounds on her pale blue-veined face: she's sitting on his sofa one night while he's clicking the remote. Imagine this terror this poses for a guy who's used to controlling that particular gadget. The experience horrifies Tom and alarms Maggie when she hears about it: at first she thinks he's dreaming, and wonders aloud who this other girl is, and Tom berates her for being jealous of a ghost. Silly her.

Naturally, Tom initially attempts to shut the whole business down. He thinks that Lisa has "opened" his mind, and he demands that she change it back. He storms back to Lisa's apartment to demand that she "unf*ck'' his mind. As this proves impossible, Tom's increasingly literal visions lead him to think that there's a dark secret being covered up by folks in the neighborhood (this involves a girl gone missing some years before: and whoa! she looks like the sofa girl). Tom feels a moral compulsion to dig it up. He's encouraged in this endeavor by the sudden realization that Jake sees dead people too, even spends time with this girl on the sofa. Father and son begin to bond, whispering late into the night. Maggie, no surprise, feels left out.

As Tom's obsession grows, the film shape shifts from psycho-thriller to male melodrama. Once the mystery breaks down into easy-fit pieces (there are no last minute, Sixth Sense-ian twists here: the trajectory toward resolution is laid out plainly and early), the movie actually starts to dig up its own hidden possibilities, though it doesn't get very far with them. Most interesting is the form of Tom's turmoil, because it represents the dismantling of his domestic harmony. He becomes incapacitated, a la Richard Dreyfus in Close Encounters. He refuse to shave, bathe, and go to work. He sits on the sofa for hours on end. He starts gulping orange juice and fish-head blender-shakes. Bacon does this well, dialing up his wiry whininess little by little, until he's all bulging neck veins and ferretty face.

As Tom is less understandable, the movie turns its emotional focus over to Maggie. Pragmatic and intelligent, she's unnerved by this crisis: she can't be a traditional wife when he gives up on the husband thing. Where Tom and Jake share their communings, she's left out of their loop, which means she's in an awkward position, both understandable to and less informed than viewers. When she starts to investigate, the audience follows along. The explanations she hears are too corny by half, sort of ghost-story detritus by way of a Scatman-Crothers-in-The-Shining kind of character. One night she tracks down what looks like a self-help gathering of similarly afflicted people, and she's informed that her kid has "the eyes on him," that her husband is a "receiver."

This conveniently timed adventure makes Maggie a believer in the ghosts and Tom and Jake's special powers. But this doesn't help her much in the film's strange gender-scheme. On the retro tip, the menfolk go zooey while Maggie tries desperately to hold things together. On the strong-female-hero tip, Maggie has to deal with her own dead people, specifically, at her grandmother's funeral. This plot development makes literal Tom and Maggie's physical estrangement and brings their paranormal crisis to its expected climax. But the movie never figures out how to negotiate or even contextualize their separate emotional situations.

While Maggie more or less figure out her own sh*t, Tom seems to undergo a life-change, from depressed to enlightened, from passive to self-assertive. Tom does learn how to "be a man," but only in the most regular ways: he rips up the house, he uncovers and fights evil, he reunites with the super-patient little woman. And he does all this, disturbingly, over a girl's corpse.

Contents | Features | Reviews | Books | Archives | Store
Copyright 1999 by Nitrate Productions, Inc. All Rights Reserved.  Copyright 1996-2005 by Nitrate Productions, Inc. All Rights Reserved.