Dragonfly is a ghost story of sorts, but it isn’t a horror film (though it occasionally thinks it is). The ghost seems to be the late wife of Dr. Joe Darrow (Kevin Costner); and who would be frightened of his own best beloved, even if she happened to be a ghost?
Actually, the horror in this particular case would be if there were no ghost — first, because if there is a ghost, that means Joe’s disbelief in the afterlife is wrong and his wife is not gone forever; second, because if there isn’t a ghost, that means Joe is descending into madness.
Joe’s wife Emily (Susanna Thompson, Random Hearts) was his soulmate and best friend. "You were the mind, she was the heart," observes a friend, presumably not knowing how closely he echoes the language of Pope Pius XI in his encyclical on Christian marriage, Casti Connubii.
But when Emily, also a doctor, dies on a humanitarian mission in the jungles of Venezuela, Joe finds that he is now "a mind without a heart," and buries his feelings in obsessive work. All that matters to him are life and death: When an attempted suicide is wheeled into the ER at Chicago Memorial Hospital, he says dismissively, "Give her to Simon — I’m interested in people who want to live tonight."
Later, in spite of himself, he winds up looking in on the would-be suicide. When she sees a doctor in her room, she protests plaintively, "Why did you bring me back?"
"Where were you going?" Joe counters.
"Someplace better," is her optimistic answer. "I’ll do it again. I will."
Joe leans forward. "That ‘better place’ you think you’re going… you better be sure it’s there. Because this place — as crappy as it is — it’s all there is. So go ahead. Be my guest. But when you never wake up… don’t say I didn’t warn you."
That’s when they both notice the rather scandalized priest standing in the doorway. "Hi, Father," Joe says with awkward defiance, standing to leave. "Time for a rebuttal?"
Alas, it’s a rebuttal we never hear. Instead, after Joe begins to suspect that his wife has not only awakened on the other side but is trying to contact him, he seeks counsel from a controversial nun named Sr. Madeline (Linda Hunt), who once worked at the same hospital as Joe until her interest in near-death experiences began to cause problems for the hospital.
Sr. Madeline’s take on the afterlife is not all one might hope for from a nun who bothers to wear a traditional habit. "You’re a doctor," she tells Joe, "because you dreamed of being a doctor. If we can create this world with our minds, why not the next?"
Sr. Madeline speaks vaguely of "faith" ("Belief gets you there"); but what she means by that seems to be something like having a hopeful outlook about the next life — certainly not having faith in God, who’s never even mentioned in this movie about the afterlife and the supernatural.
As a ghost story, Dragonfly has some effective moments. The most unnerving of these is unfortunately spoiled by a clumsy expository set-up that ruins the surprise; even so, when the moment does arrive, it still manages to work. (In a better film, the setup would have been done more subtly via flashback rather than exposition.)
Another genuine goosebump moment will probably catch you off-guard (it has to do with things not being where they ought to be). More often than not, though, director Tom Shadyac (Patch Adams) goes for cheap, empty "boo scenes" that don’t really belong in this movie anyway (and are spoiled in the trailer to boot).
There is also a mystery element. Joe comes to believe that his wife may be trying to communicate with him via patients, especially children, who have near-death experiences. These children seem to know a lot about Joe, and they report having met his wife somewhere near a "rainbow" ("She wants you to go there — to the rainbow," they tell him).
The children also make enigmatic paintings of a peculiar, wavy cross that I initially took for a dragonfly motif, though it turns out to have a quite different significance. (In retrospect, it seems an odd thing for a ghost to fixate on to get her point across; but what do I know?)
Dragonflies, by the way, figure in the story because Emily, who had a dragonfly-shaped birthmark on her right shoulder blade, had an affinity for the insects. "Dragonflies were sort of her thing, her totem," Joe explains at one point. Emily even used to say that she would be reincarnated as a dragonfly.
Besides the goosebump moment mentioned earlier, the film has two other real surprises. One is Joe’s startling answer to a neighbor who asks him skeptically what reason his wife’s spirit could possibly have for what seems to Joe to be her "increasingly desperate" manifestations — an answer that threatens to upend everything you think you know about the story to date.
The other surprise, of course, comes at the climax; and, while I acknowledge in retrospect that the "twist" is clearly set up, and have no doubt that many observant viewers will pick up on it long before the third act, I must admit that I for one was satisfyingly suckered. If the film as a whole works at all, it’s the ending that makes it work.
But Dragonfly isn’t content to be about spooky scenes and a twist ending. There’s a lot of discussion about spiritual ideas and near-death experiences, some of it fairly involved.
One character, a doctor, offers a physiological explanation for the stereotyped near-death accounts of seeing a tunnel with light at the other end. Another, a grief counselor, connects spiritual phenomena with psychology: "Guilt, anger toward our loved ones… that’s why we conjure up spirits, from the Virgin Mary to our loved ones."
Then there’s a young boy at Joe’s hospital who offers surprising evidence for his claim that he saw Joe during a near-death experience while his spirit was hovering near the ceiling — but then that evidence is amusingly debunked, or at least accounted for naturalistically. Of course we also have Emily’s comments about reincarnation, and Sr. Madeline’s annoying pop-spirituality buzzwords.
To be fair, Sr. Madeline’s comments are ambiguous and could be interpreted different ways. Likewise, though the movie tosses around concepts like reincarnation and the idea that spiritual phenomena have a psychological or physiological basis, none of those concepts is supported by the story itself: Emily doesn’t get reincarnated as a dragonfly, and whatever is happening to Joe, it isn’t just a byproduct of his emotions (and perhaps it might be inferred that the same applies to at least some Marian apparitions).
Nevertheless, the one point of view that is never even proposed by any character in the film is the Christian belief in God and Heaven (let alone hell). Christian belief is not so much repudiated as ignored. "Aren’t you the guy who doesn’t believe in Heaven?" someone asks Joe. His reply is significant: "This isn’t Heaven — this is rainbows!"
It’s not all bad. The film is vaguely life-affirming, even verging on nascent pro-life implications. That’s not enough. If you’re going to have a character specifically debunking Marian apparitions, you ought to give Christian belief some kind of hearing. A movie about the afterlife that includes two priests, a nun, and a church funeral can find a moment to allow someone to say something about God. That doesn’t seem too much to expect.
The irony is that the film thinks it is being boldly counter-cultural and missionary in a world it seems to think is characterized by rationalistic skepticism — when in fact Dragonfly’s vague spirituality is the very picture of today’s credulous do-it-yourself religiosity. This is a movie in which characters say such things as "In a day when no one believes in miracles any more, I was witnessing miracles every day" and "I’m a lawyer, Joe — nothing is real without evidence."
The film’s official website quotes producer Mark Johnson as saying: "In today’s world, where there seems to be empirical evidence for everything, it takes a lot to go out on a ledge and say, ‘I believe in something I can’t even begin to describe and it’s as important to me as anything else that’s here in the concrete world.’ "
What century is Johnson living in? The truth of the matter is that in today’s world, where people seem willing to believe anything and everything as long as it isn’t "organized religion," what takes a lot is to go out on a ledge and say, ‘I believe in something particular and concrete that is described in detail in the creeds and doctrines of a particular church.’ "
Incidentally, the Dragonfly website offers "spiritual readings" based on your answers to a series of questions such as "Have you ever been to a psychic?" and "Do you believe in past lives?" On a scale from zero ("less spiritually inclined") to seven ("more spiritually inclined"), the website gave me a rating of "1," informing me that "When it comes to life after death, near-death experiences and the supernatural, you are generally a non-believer. In relation to your peers, you are considerably more skeptical about the ‘other side.’ "
I guess that’s the difference between believing in Something and believing in anything.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.