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Stir of Echoes

Reviewed By Rob Gonsalves
Posted 02/02/07 14:28:21

"Not bad, but we've seen it before."
3 stars (Just Average)

To call 'Stir of Echoes' a better movie than 'Stigmata,' its weekend competitor, is to damn it with faint praise. To compare it with 'The Sixth Sense' is a bit unfair, since it's not 'Stir of Echoes' fault that 'Sixth Sense' got bumped up to an earlier release and ended up owning the box office and besides, 'Stir' is based on a Richard Matheson novel published 41 years ago.

So when you watch the plot about a man and a little boy visited by a ghost who wants them to help her find justice, just keep repeating to yourself: I didn't just see this last month ... I didn't just see this last month ...

It's also not the movie's fault that its source novel (which I haven't read) may have inspired previous movies like Close Encounters of the Third Kind, with its visionary-crackpot hero compelled to trash his living room. Here, the crackpot is Kevin Bacon as Tom, a Chicago telephone lineman who is hypnotized by his occultist sister-in-law (Illeana Douglas, effortlessly stealing the movie as usual) and begins to have close encounters of the spectral kind. He has ugly hallucinations involving broken teeth, fingernails, plastic bags. He develops a serious jones for orange juice (this is never explained, even at the end when everything else is). Most significantly, he is inspired to dig up his back yard and then his cellar looking for what? He doesn't know, but whatever it is, it Means Something.

Aside from the derivative plot (accidental or not), Stir of Echoes sometimes offers the same gray, pleasurable realism that distinguished The Sixth Sense. Tom, a good man vaguely frustrated by his lot in life, has a scruffy and easy relationship with his wife Maggie (Kathryn Erbe) at least until he starts going wacky and he adores his little son Jake (Zachary David Cope), who has a much calmer reaction to the supernatural than his dad does. At several points, including the very first shot, Jake speaks directly into the camera when communicating with the dead effectively putting us in the position of the ghost. This was cool when Kubrick did it in The Shining (remember Nicholson talking to us for a long time before the camera cut away to reveal his audience, Lloyd the bartender?), and it's still cool here. Zachary David Cope's performance has been compared favorably to that of Haley Joel Osment in Sixth Sense, but Cope lacks Osment's dread-ridden quietude and soulfulness; he's just a healthy kid diverting himself with his unseen playmate, like Heather O'Rourke in Poltergeist.

Writer-director David Koepp essentially has two careers. To put food on the table, he punches the time clock on big projects like Mission: Impossible and The Lost World; on his own, he has written and directed one previous film The Trigger Effect, an intriguing sociological thriller that was fine until it got a bit fancy in the last couple of reels. I can see why he wanted to do Stir of Echoes; both movies are concerned with community and the ways in which it comes together or splits apart in times of stress. Tom's visions point towards a secret horror, and really, on some level, I didn't want to watch it. Koepp is tasteful enough to spare us the worst of it, but the revelation (shown in a flashback vision) works our sympathies in the eleventh hour and can't come up with a resolution decisive enough to satisfy us: Having seen the wicked deed, we want to see the perpetrators get it so it hurts. And so a thoughtful metaphysical chiller becomes a revenge movie, which ends up rehashing the old saw that this seemingly perfect neighborhood has a few skeletons (or at least one, literally).

Bacon throws himself into his obsessive performance; it's strenuous, honest work from an underrated actor. But after a while Tom's mania gets monotonous, and it's a relief when we can leave the house and follow Maggie and Jake (who encounter a black cop who seems to be a blatant reference to Scatman Crothers in The Shining he does everything but warn the boy to stay away from room 237), or when we get to visit Illeana Douglas' Wiccan of uncertain sexual preference, who complains at one point that Tom has dropped in on her right when she and a lady friend were "smoking a nice fattie."

A great actress like Douglas makes you feel that there's much more you need and want to know about her characters; David Koepp doesn't quite have that gift yet as a filmmaker. Thus far, he is an accomplished and serious director whose movies fall apart after a promising start. Perhaps one day he'll make it across the finish line; to do that, though, he needs to exorcise some of the Screenwriting 101 demons he has had to internalize in order to become a Hollywood success story.

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