Stir of Echoes (review)

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He Be Hypmotized

Are we seeing the birth of a whole new genre of suspense films? The “I see dead people” genre? I suppose it’s merely a coincidence that Stir of Echoes arrived in theaters only a month after The Sixth Sense. Unfortunately for Stir of Echoes, the scant temporal distance from Haley Joel Osment’s sad terror only serves to highlight how mediocre this film is.

In some minor ways, Stir of Echoes shares more with the domestic dramedy American Beauty than it does with a thriller like The Sixth Sense. As in Beauty, we have an ordinary schmoe — here, telephone repairman Tom Witzky (Kevin Bacon: Telling Lies in America) — bemoaning his ordinary existence and longing for a little excitement in his life. Tom and his wife, Maggie (Kathryn Erbe) live in a comfortable working-class Chicago neighborhood with their young son, Jake (Zachary David Cope). Maggie is preggers again, which means that Tom is gonna have to quit that foolishness with his going-nowhere band and start hunkering down at work… But, no, sure, of course he’s happy with Maggie’s news.
Tom gets his excitement, though not quite in the way he would have wanted. He scoffs at the “superstitious crap” his sister-in-law Lisa (Illeana Douglas) believes in, everything from astrology to hypnotism, and on a dare he allows Lisa to hypnotize him. The hypnotism scene is actually mesmerizing: Lisa uses a metaphor of a darkened movie theater to put Tom under, and we see Tom imagining himself floating toward a white movie screen as we ourselves sit in a darkened movie theater. Too bad Lisa didn’t suggest to the audience, lulled into a near state of hypnotism by this effective imagery, that we turn our brains off. Because all that’s to come might be far more enjoyable if we couldn’t see each “twist” coming a mile away.

Lisa does give Tom a posthypnotic suggestion: to have a more open mind. Tom is now so open to his surroundings that he starts seeing the ghost of a dead girl, right there in his house. Jake, whom we’ve known sees dead people from the opening moments of the film, tells his father not to be afraid. “You’re awake now, Daddy,” the tyke, whose preternatural precociousness is never really spooky, and often merely serves to add a dose of oogie-boogie-ness to what develops into a not-terribly-supernatural murder mystery.

Tom becomes obsessed with discovering who the girl is, and when he does, how she died. By the time he starts asking around the neighborhood about the girl, who was local, I’d already pinned her murderer and even pretty much guessed why she was killed. The crime, not to belittle the untimely and violent death of a young woman, turns out to be of a depressingly ordinary variety.

Tom’s close-knit neighborhood, “a decent neighborhood,” is impressively rendered, a cozy if contradictory place of bars on windows and rowdy block parties, the el train rumbling through nearby. Director David Koepp has captured a real world nicely, but his script (based on a Richard Matheson novel; Koepp also wrote Snake Eyes and The Lost World: Jurassic Park) isn’t as impressive as his directing. I kept hoping that the story would turn away from the bland path it was taking, kept seeing where it could. A scene in which Tom and Maggie leave Jake alone with a new babysitter initially impressed me: Tom, when he looks at the girl, sees eerie flashes. Something’s not quite right with her, or something bad’s going to happen to her, we’re meant to see. But Tom and Maggie leave her with Jake anyway. As she sits on the couch, reading her book, in a house we know is haunted, with a weird kid asleep upstairs, I was reminded of creepy nights as a teenager babysitter myself, spending evenings in a strange house with strange kids. But when the scene finally pays off, it takes the least creepy route.

After all the run-of-the-mill stuff thrown at us in Stir of Echoes, it ends with the highly implausible reappearance of someone who shouldn’t be showing up again. Annoying ending to a disappointingly ordinary film. Sorry, Tom.

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