Stir of Echoes (1999)

by Cynthia Fuchs


Male Melodrama


ou’re not supposed to mesmerize someone who’s been drinking.” So warns Lisa (Illeana Douglas), when her not quite sober brother-in-law Tom Witzky (Kevin Bacon) asks her to hypnotize him. Being hard-headed, a little bored with his working class life, and full of beer at a neighborhood party, he doesn’t heed the warning. Good thing, because now Stir of Echoes, written and directed by David Koepp and based on Richard Matheson’s 1958 novel, can proceed.

cover art

Stir of Echoes

Director: David Keopp
Cast: Kevin Bacon, Kathryn Erbe, Illeana Douglass, Liza Weil, Zachary David Cope

(Artisan Entertainment)

This proceeding is premised on the frustrations Joe feels with his dim bulb existence. He’s a regular joe who works as a telephone company lineman, living in blue collar Chicago. He’s got a supportive wife named Maggie (Kathryn Erbe, the terrifically manipulative death row inmate in HBO’s prison series, Oz) and a bright, cute kid named Jake (six-commercial veteran Zachary David Cope). He seems to have everything necessary for his diurnal life within easy reach, like his friends who are also his neighbors Frank (Kevin Dunn) and Harry (Conor O’Farrell). And yet, all this stability is making Tom feel restless. While he assures Maggie that he’s a “happy guy,” he’s clearly not thrilled with his lot in life. “I never wanted to be famous,” he sighs. “I just didn’t expect to be so ordinary.” These would be, as they say, famous last words.

Tom’s decision to be hypnotized is therefore set up as a calculated risk, emerging from a desire to be less ordinary. And indeed, the experience is a weird one: he enters “another realm,” cornily marked by a literal image of Lisa’s mermeristic invocation (he’s in a movie theater, he’s floating toward the screen, he sees words on the screen, etc.). As if this hokiness isn’t enough, following the hypnosis, Tom begins to suffer some peculiar traumas, like incapacitating headaches and violent visions. He sees scary fragments of scenes, nothing he can recognize exactly, something like memories, only they’re not his own, they’re someone else’s. These images are effectively taut and sketchy, hard to read and accompanied by a predictably spooky soundtrack. The film also makes the requisite self-conscious movie jokes, associating Tom’s apparitions with well-known pop cultural images of alienation and mayhem via movies on background televisions, like The Incredible Shrinking Man and Night of the Living Dead.

But such cleverness soon turns ugly, and then worse, it turns trite. Per the apparent fashion at the time of the film’s release (when the record-breaking Sixth Sense was in theaters), Tom sees dead people. More precisely, he sees a girl with terrible red wounds on her pale blue-veined face, who makes a terrific entrance: she appears suddenly, sitting on his sofa one night while he’s clicking the remote. Imagine this terror this poses for a guy who’s used to having control when handling that particular gadget.

The experience horrifies Tom and alarms Maggie when she hears about it. At first she thinks he’s dreaming, and wonders aloud who this other “girl” might be. Tom berates her for being jealous of a ghost. In an effort to regain control, Tom initially attempts to shut the whole business down. Thinking that Lisa has somehow “opened” a door, he wants her to shut it. He storms back to Lisa’s apartment to demand that she “unfuck’’ his mind (the storming reveals one of the film’s more intriguing scenes, which is summarily dismissed: Lisa is partying with a girlfriend, whom we never see again, but you get the feeling that Lisa has a less than ordinary life, one worth tracking instead of Tom’s).

As a return to normalcy proves impossible, Tom’s increasingly scary and specific visions lead him to think that there’s a dark secret being covered up by folks in the neighborhood (this involves a girl gone missing some years before: and whoa! she looks like the sofa girl). Tom feels a moral compulsion to dig it up. And he’s soon encouraged in this endeavor by the revelation that his son Jake sees dead people too, and has been spending time with the girl on the sofa. Father and son begin to bond, whispering late into the night, waiting for the dead girl to show. Maggie, no surprise, feels left out of this boys only activity.

As Tom’s obsession grows, the film shape shifts from psycho-thriller to male melodrama. And this makes the film itself less ordinary: its interest in how Tom occupies and understands his domestic spaces (certainly his house, but also his relationships, his fatherhood, his unfulfilled aspirations) is potentially a brave one. Not many films — or actors — treat masculine panic about domestic oppressions seriously, and Bacon makes Tom’s gradual unnerving palpable. Given that — even in this day and age — most men in Western cultures are conditioned to think of themselves primarily outside their homes, Stir of Echoes’ investigation of what happens when a man feels completely trapped inside and also irresistibly drawn by his home is remarkable.

Once the mystery breaks down into easy-fit pieces (there are no last minute, Sixth Sense-ian twists here: the trajectory toward resolution is laid out plainly and early), the movie actually starts to dig up its own hidden possibilities, though it doesn’t go as far with them as it might have. Most interesting is the form of Tom’s turmoil, because it represents the dismantling of his domestic harmony. He becomes incapacitated (like Richard Dreyfuss in Close Encounters), unable to endure the most mundane daily tasks. He refuses to shave, bathe, and go to work. He sits on the sofa for hours on end. He starts gulping orange juice and fish-head blender-shakes. Bacon does this well, dialing up his wiry whiniess little by little, until he’s all bulging neck veins. And then Tom’s fear of the unknown becomes fear of the known: he decides he must search for clues to the murder he keeps witnessing in fragments, and so, he literally assaults his home, taking a pick axe, shovel, and jackhammer to the basement.

It may be telling that, as Tom becomes less comprehensible as a character, the movie turns its emotional focus over to Maggie (and a woman, it’s worth noting, is the more traditional focus for both melodrama and horror). Pragmatic and intelligent, she’s naturally frightened by Tom’s bizarre behaviors: she can’t be a traditional wife when he gives up on the husband thing. Where Tom and Jake share their communings, she’s left out of their loop, which means she’s in an awkward position, both sympathetic to and less informed than viewers. When she starts to investigate, the audience follows along, but always a step ahead of her at the same time. The explanations she hears are too silly by half, sort of ghost-story detritus by way of a Scatman-Crothers-in-The-Shining kind of character whom she meets, appropriately, at a cemetery. One night she follows this guy to what appears to be a self-help gathering of similarly afflicted people, and she’s informed that her kid has “the eyes on him” and that her husband is a “receiver.”

This conveniently timed adventure makes Maggie an immediate believer in the ghosts and in Tom and Jake’s special powers. But this doesn’t help her much in the film’s strange gender-scheme. On one hand (the retro one), the menfolk go zooey while Maggie tries desperately to hold her family together. But on another hand (seeing Maggie as the strong female hero), she is faced with a personal crisis, which she handles on her own because her husband is so unhelpful. That is, Maggie has to deal with her own “dead people,” specifically, her grandmother, who conveniently dies just as Tom’s making huge piles of rubble downstairs. This plot development clarifies and underlines Tom and Maggie’s estrangement: she leaves him alone in the house. Unfortunately, the movie never figures out how to negotiate or even contextualize their separate emotional situations, and the climax turns into standard paranormal shenanigans, exorcizing ghosts and setting right past sins and all that.

The point is to force Tom to undergo a life-change, from depressed to enlightened, from passive to self-assertive. He learns how to “be a man,” but only in the most regular ways, uncovering and fighting evil, reuniting with the super-patient and super-scrappy little woman. Most disturbingly, he does all this over a girl’s corpse, that most typical sign of masculinity in control and in crisis.

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