"Dead Awake" begins as a slow, meandering, bizarre, inexplicable story that shows us a lot and yet doesn't seem to be going anywhere. By the time we discover that the film is indeed about something, we've already passed the point at which we can still care about it. We then have to endure a twist ending that's not only painfully unoriginal, but is also deeply connected to a plot hole big enough to drive a truck through. I went through three distinct emotional stages watching this film. The first was intense dislike, for it seemed as if the film's sole purpose was to hopelessly confuse the audience. The second was a quiet, reserved sense of acceptance, and it came to me the moment I finally realized that the filmmakers were in fact aiming for something. The third was disappointment, since it was obvious that their aim was way off.
The film is a moody psychological drama that always looks muddy and out of focus. It continuously hints at the supernatural and yet never gets around to confirming or denying it until the very end, at which point all interest in the subject has passed. The main character is Dylan (Nick Stahl), an emotionally distant young man who still broods over a car accident from ten years ago. He visits the crash site every year on the anniversary of the crash, and as he explains to the detective who handled the case, something about the situation just doesn't add up. He's currently a funeral director, having given up on college and life in general. He often has trouble sleeping. He's on anxiety medications. He continuously plays with a yoyo, believing its ability to keep returning to his hand is symbolic of the mistakes that keep coming back to haunt him.
At the funeral of an old high school football acquaintance, he reunites with Natalie (Amy Smart), who was his high school sweetheart until the death of his parents. She's now the girlfriend of another high school classmate (Ben Marten), who likes to boast about his fledgling legal career and still regards Dylan as a lower life form. Despite this, it's obvious that Natalie and Dylan still have feelings for each other. And with this, we come to a bet that Dylan makes with friend and fellow funeral director, a grating Irish stereotype named Decko (Brian Lynner): If he were to fake his death and put his name in an obituary, absolutely no one would come to his funeral. The next thing we know, Dylan is lying in an open casket, waiting for someone - anyone - to show up. If there was ever an event that could only exist in the movies, this would be it.
Here enters Charlie (Rose McGowan), a full-fledged junkie. She's obsessed with death. She constantly reads the obituaries. She goes to wakes all the time. Her apartment is a nightmarish shrine of newspaper clippings and filth. At Dylan's phony wake, she rambles about the sentence, "Jesus wept," which happens to be the Bible's shortest passage. For reasons never adequately explained, Dylan follows her to her apartment; through very unlikely circumstances, she becomes convinced that he's her guardian angel, that he's actually dead, and that his belief that he's still alive is merely a state of denial. She claims that the dead walk among us all the time, that Dylan is in purgatory. If he's dead, he asks her, then why is it that everyone else can see him? If you believe in it, Charlie explains, you will make it real for yourself and for others. To get out, you first have to accept that you're dead. Then you have to make peace with your life.
Where is all of this going? What message is director Omar Naim trying to send? For most of the film, I was convinced that there wouldn't be an answer to either of those questions. It builds itself up in the strangest of ways, none of which seem to connect to anything. What am I to make, for example, of an early moment when Dylan talks to a corpse in a coffin and then in an unexplained flash notices the corpse's mouth move? Is he communicating with the dead, or is he on too many medications? What about his dreams? Are they dreams at all, or are they fragmented premonitions of some sort? What about the quick flickers of light, or the sudden whispering of voices?
Although we eventually find out what the film is trying to say, much of what I just asked remains unanswered. So then why was any of it included? And then there's the ending, one that would be impossible considering all the various way it ties into important plot events. It also begs the question of whose story was really being told. I don't know who was hired to keep track of the film's continuity, but that person needs a serious crash course in the subject. And now that I've written this review, I find that I've reached a fourth emotional phase: Frustration. "Dead Awake" had all the right ingredients for a reliable fantasy drama, and yet they were mixed together in the wrong amounts. The result is a confused, overwrought, dingy-looking mess of a film. This may be nitpicking on my part, but I also think the title just terrible.
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About the reviewer
Chris Pandolfi (Chris_Pandolfi)
Growing up a shy kid in a quiet suburb of Los Angeles, Chris Pandolfi knows all about the imagination. Pretend games were always the most fun for him, especially on the school playground; he and his … more
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What if a stranger held the key to the darkest moment of your life? Dylan (Nick Stahl) is haunted by his past. While searching for answers, he befriends a mysterious woman (Rose McGowan) and is reunited with an old love (Amy Smart) who seem to raise more questions than they answer. Now on the brink of madness, Dylan is transformed by supernatural forces and discovers that no one is who they seem.