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Dragonfly

Director: Tom Shadyac
Cast: Kevin Costner, Ron Rifkin, Kathy Bates, Joe Morton, Linda Hunt, Jacob Vargas

(Universal Pictures; US theatrical: 22 Feb 2002; 2002)

Feeling things

On the Dragonfly website, you can “get your spiritual reading” by answering seven questions about your “beliefs.” Though the results range from “more spiritually inclined” to “less spiritually inclined,” it’s easy enough to manipulate your final score, what with the questions like “Do you believe in reincarnation?”, “Do you believe dreams can be interpreted?” or even, “Do you believe in love at first sight?” Personally, I believe in fairies.


Belief is a big deal in Dragonfly, the latest entry in 2002’s February Film Dump Sweepstakes. Much like other movies released this month (which, according to industry logic, is the time to dispose of all shelved junk, since everyone’s preoccupied with Oscar-talk or some such thing), Kevin Costner’s new vehicle is not just bad, but somehow, simultaneously preposterous and banal. This one is also highly derivative, borrowing liberally from any number of popular (and peculiar) plots of the recent past. If you’re inclined to believe, you might say that it has its finger on the pulse of… something.


Costner plays Joe Darrow, a dedicated Chicago ER doctor, obviously doomed to face adversity. And within the film’s first minutes, there it is: his beautiful pediatrician wife Emily (Susanna Thomas) dies in the Venezuelan jungle, when her bus is pushed into a raging river by a rockslide (as Joe is back in the States, he doesn’t see this, but only gets the grisly idea when their phone connection cuts off). Before you can say, The Mothman Prophecies, poor Joe is suffering terribly, and in case you need a little poignancy-push, the film is sprinkled through with flashbacks to show just how happy they were, expecting their first child; laughing side by side on a picnic blanket; having earnest sex in their bedroom.


Though Joe is not a “believer” in much of anything, Emily was—she considered the dragonfly to be her personal totem. And soon, oh dear, Joe begins to see dragonflies, which lead him to believe that she’s trying to contact him from beyond—and without a peep from John Edward. The rest of the film tracks Joe’s efforts to “come to terms” with Emily’s death.


Clichéd and tedious as it is in this incarnation, grieving is, of course, a painful process. And, as Costner took pains to point out, on 20 February’s Today, the subject is both timeless and timely. When you lose a “great love,” he said, “You’re always going to have difficulty with that; there’s going to have all kinds of emotions running through you. It’s the big burning question I think all of us have, throughout the century. It hasn’t really ever been answered for us. The smartest people in the world, men and women, haven’t really been able to explain it any of our satisfaction. We have to go on faith.” Hmmm. And also, of course, there’s the 9-11 tie-in: “For the World Trade Center,” he added, “I don’t have a doubt in my mind that those people are feeling things.” Double hmmm.


At first, Joe’s version of “feeling things” makes for trouble on the job: he refuses to treat a suicide attempt, saying he’d rather treat someone “who wants to live,” and, without proper permission, delivers a dying woman’s child (this becomes a relevant plot point later, sort of). Though Joe’s colleague/mentor (Ron Rifkin) tries to help him along, listening to his travails and explaining that it will all take time, his boss, grumpy hospital administrator Hugh (Joe Morton), insists that Joe take time off, because his “edge” is now so sharp that he’s “cutting people.” (Clearly, Hugh has missed his calling, with his instinct for killer metaphor.)


Before you can say The Sixth Sense, Joe’s decided to spend his free time visiting with Emily’s former patients. He finds out that many of them are now dead (she dealt with a lot of terminal cases, as indicated by the big red “Deceased” stamps over most of the names on his list). One who’s still alive, Jeffrey (Robert Bailey, Jr.), has had repeated near-death experiences (NDEs), and one night, he calls to Joe from a gurney, while flatlining. When the doctors working on Jeffrey shake their heads and turn away, Joe walks toward him, and whoa! the kid’s eyes fly open.


A few minutes later, Jeffrey is chattering on about some “message” he’s got for “Emily’s Joe,” sent by Emily, whom he ran into while flying around on the ceiling, over the doctors and the gurney. Surely, it’s just coincidence that Jeffrey is black, i.e., one of those Magical Negroes who regularly appear in movies where white people need to be reminded of their spirituality and their “beliefs.” That said, Joe gets some more news from the “other side,” from yet another kid (Jacob Smith), this one white and wearing lots of dark-circles-under-the-eyes-makeup. This boy says Emily wants Joe to “go there,” apparently some rainbow that the kid sees in his near-death vision.


Before you can say What Lies Beneath, Joe’s seeing things himself (objects moving about) and hearing voices (most gruesomely, from an organ donor-corpse). Doors whoosh open, he gets old pictures Emily sent from Venezuela (one where she’s near a waterfall), wind blows through the hallways, Emily appears in a window (in a white nightgown—why oh why do girl ghosts always come back in white nightgowns?), thunder crashes in the distance, and oh yes, Emily’s big old pet parrot, silent since her death, starts talking like she’s in the house. Appropriately creeped out, Joe seeks advice from his next-door neighbor, Miriam (Kathy Bates), a lawyer who bails him out of jail and looks after the parrot at any time of day or night. Eventually, even saintly Miriam’s patience appears to wear out, and she tells him he needs to “get away,” specifically, that he should go on a white-water rafting trip with his college friends; this after his wife has drowned—call me sentimental, but somehow this seems like a bad idea.


Still feeling, uhh, adrift, Joe seeks help from a nun, Sister Madeline (Linda Hunt), whose previous research on NDEs had her interviewing Emily’s “kids.” Just in case you’ve been confused, Sister Madeline breaks it down—something to do with the “murky depths,” Emily using the children as a “conduit” because they’re “open” to such experiences, and yadda yadda. At this point, you might be wondering why Kathy Bates and Linda Hunt are playing such silly supporting roles in this increasingly silly movie. Or you might be wondering when Joe is finally going to get his rear in gear and get on with the business of tracking down that darn white-nightgowned ghost.


Then, before you can say Collateral Damage, Joe is indeed in his way to South America. Once in Venezuela, he gets some help from a local pilot and interpreter, Victor (Jacob Vargas), who spends most of his few minutes on screen telling Joe that he cannot go here or there, and most especially, that he can’t go to the “Hidden Village” that’s been close off since the rockslide, the very village where—you guessed it—Emily posed with that waterfall. Though Victor insists that he can’t “go there,” that he doesn’t “have permission,” Joe strides off, saying, so very earnestly, “I have permission!” Well, of course he does. He’s a white guy. And here, he’s the white guy. Before you can say Dancing With Venezuelans, Joe’s made his way into the village, where he is quickly surrounded by murmuring natives. And what things, you might ask, are they feeling?

Cynthia Fuchs is director of Film & Media Studies and Associate Professor of English, Film & Video Studies, African and African American Studies, Sport & American Culture, and Women and Gender Studies at George Mason University.


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