Dream House: Elizabeth Killed her Daughters (2800 words)
Peter looks in Ann's direction and this act destroys his dream house, the problem is that the girls are part of the walls.
Dream House is a very good film. It has 6% on rotten tomatoes (or 7% or 0% it depends of the mood the site is in).
As the story is pretty convoluted, it would be hard and tiring to first explain what it seems to be about and then only what it truly is. I’ll jump to my interpretation straight forward.
1. Peter Ward abandoned a job in a publishing house in order to go and live with his family in a town in New England. It was a big sacrifice for him.
2. Elizabeth, his wife, is an over anxious woman who leaves him no space because she is scared he might cheat on her or leave her. We can witness several times how popular Peter is amongst women.
3. When he arrives at the house, Elizabeth shows him the plants she’s painted on the stairs and pretends that the girls did it. It’s an aggression. She painted plants without asking him whether he’d like it or not, and pressured him into saying he liked the result by pretending the girls did it. (The plants are very tentacle-like).
"oh oh oh, these nice creepers are not creepy at all darling. They absolutely don't remind me of my relationship with you."
4. This describes Libby and Peter’s relationship pretty well. She won’t leave him any space and uses her girls to silence him.
5. When she decides that he’s been spending too much time writing, she sends a girl to bother him. Even more, she’s raised and conditioned her daughters to believe that their father isn’t there enough, that it proves that he doesn’t love them.
The girls spontaneously try to take less room because they can feel their dad's need for space. It's the mother who transforms their initiative into something worrying.
6. She constantly reminds him of how much they all need him. How much they’re happier now that he’s there etc… it all looks like happiness except that Peter is not happy. He loves them, but he wants to write a book too and his wife does everything she can to prevent him from doing so. Maybe because his being a writer makes him even more popular amongst women and she knows he is a good one.
7. Peter becomes more and more resentful and secretly hostile to his family...
8. …even though he truly loves them. Imagine how his daughters can become irritating when he knows that their laughs and shouts and interruptions are the result of his wife’s initiatives to prevent him from working, from living, from enjoying some space. The Dream House, the dreamlike family life, is Libby’s weapon to manipulate and submit Peter.
9. How can you blame or hate the incarnations of innocence ? Two beautiful little girls. And actually, we can wonder whether Elizabeth did these two girls in order to capture the father. I’ve witnessed this happen more often than not, women getting pregnant for practical purposes and to protect their own personal interests.
10. Eventually, Peter cracks and perpetrates the sole thing that is left for him to do: cheat on his wife as a cry for freedom. Everything she does aims at preventing it and her behaviour is so violent (in a passive aggressive way) that in the end, she brings Peter to do it as a rebellion.
11. He sleeps with Ann Paterson one evening when her husband isn’t at home.
12. They’re interrupted by gunshots coming from the Dream House, Peter runs back home. Libby has killed their two daughters as a mean to make him feel guilty. He actually somewhat agrees with her behaviour because he loves his daughter so much that the idea of what they would have to go through because of his behaviour is unbearable. Watching them cry because “Daddy doesn’t love Mummy anymore,” or because “Daddy doesn’t want to be with us” would be all the more unbearable as Libby conditioned them to think that their father doesn’t truly love them.
13. Elizabeth shoots him in the head and he falls unconscious.
It's funny how the creepers (Libby) make the link between Peter and Boyce and also how they're both emprisonned between the bars of the stairs. Libby (and the house) are slowly but surely making a child killer out of Peter.
14. Ann Paterson (who logically followed her lover) kills Elizabeth Ward and calls the cops.
15. Peter Ward wakes up amnesiac because he cannot cope with the guilt. He truly feels responsible for what happened to his daughters, and actually he partly is. He didn’t pull the trigger but he knew his wife had a morbid behaviour and that cheating on her wouldn’t make her more balanced. He should have addressed the problem properly.
16. The guilt makes him believe that he is the one who killed them, all the more so as he discovers in him desires that correspond to the crimes. He wanted to see his daughters disappear because they were preventing him from writing a book. He wanted to kill his wife because she was using their daughters to prevent him from writing a book or have a life. He also wanted to cheat on his wife in order to rebel against her, knowing that it would “kill/destroy” his daughters whom he loved.
17. In order to escape the situation he develops a split personality and becomes Will Aterton.
18. Ann Paterson, who is in love with him or under his spell, visits him at the mental house in hopes that he might simply accept that he will never know what happened and let himself be dragged into a relationship with her.
19. Five years after the murders, Peter Ward is released from the mental institution and his “brain” makes him re-experience everything that lead to the tragedy in order to discover who did it. He thus perceives his leaving the institution as quitting his job as a writer for a renowned publisher (or something like that I can’t remember).
20. Of course, things do not happen in the exact same way as the events now take place in Peter’s mind and he is still ready to believe that he is the murderer.
21. Ann Paterson jumps on the occasion to try to seduce him again. Also, as he is a crazy hallucinating man, she is worried he might die of starvation alone in his house and brings him food.
Jack Paterson is just a sad ex-husband who loves his daughter and thinks his wife cheated on him with a child murderer.
22. Jack Paterson is bitter from the start because his wife cheated on him with a man who, he believes, killed his wife and daughters, and realises that his own wife is still ready to offer herself to him in spite of his crimes. His behaviour is totally understandable: his bitterness, his condescension, his hostility, his desire to obtain the complete custody of his daughter.
23. Peter hallucinatory life allows him to “investigate” the murders and obviously to realise that Will Aterton is a creation of his mind. He is Peter Ward.
The use of the same actors for different roles underline how capable Peter is of altering his perception of reality. However, he only goes as far as rewriting interactions at the end of the movie (which is bad).
24. At the same time, we are also given the opportunity to realise how much Libby depends on him and makes him do everything.
25. Finally, Peter Ward reaches the moment where he asks Libby what happened the night of the murders. He first has to force her to admit that the girls are dead. What she answers doesn’t make sense. It’s only what he is ready to hear and wants to believe=> she found the girls dead and committed suicide.
26. However, her narration of the facts betrays its artificiality when she carries on and starts telling the beginning of Peter’s hallucination that takes place five years after the murders:
“I knew they were going away and I knew I needed to take care of them so I went with them. And then… I found those flowers, and I was painting in the front hall. And it was snowing and I was worried you wouldn’t make it home but you did.”
27. If Libby doesn’t give the right answer, it’s because Peter cannot imagine that she did it. He loved her too much and cannot confront himself to the horrible truth.
28. That’s when Ann Patterson choses to knock on the door, again. She had managed to make Peter take a bath in her house and had told him “don’t go anywhere.” But he left.
29. The loving neighbour would like Peter to realise that Libby killed the girls because Peter and herself were having sex together. If he did, he would also understand that she was the one who killed Elizabeth.
30. It’s very subtle: as long as Peter cannot remember that Libby killed the girls because he was having sex with Ann, it means that he will probably blame Ann for killing his wife. Whereas if he could accept that Libby is the guilty one and not him, he would forgive Ann for the murder of his wife.
31. wife innocent = mistress guilty
wife guilty = mistress innocent
32. Ann at least assures him that he is not the murderer that which triggers a very chaotic situation as Peter now needs either the truth or a scapegoat.
33. If he is not the murderer, and Libby isn’t either, then who is ?
34. Jack Patterson and a random guy suddenly appear, conveniently confess the murder, conveniently give motives and explanations and conveniently kill each other. Everybody hated this cop-out.
35. But truly what is happening is that Peter is again imagining things. We’ve seen him reshape inanimate objects: the old house in ruins is new and shiny in his mind. We’ve seen him bring back to life his wife and his daughter.
36. The problem is that until that moment, there always was a clear cut between reality and illusion which allowed us to look at Peter as a balanced man victim of a deception. He is a bit like a person who would have had their memory erased, would have been put in a deceptive situation and who would slowly discover the truth.
37. The hallucinatory ending breaks this reassuring structure because Peter goes as far as imagining interactions between Ann, who is truly there, and persons who are not, while still considering that she can’t see Elizabeth. Ah yeah, and Elizabeth’s status is upgraded to the one of a ghost.
38. This is a very cheap and clumsy looking ending. It is coherent though. Peter is pushed into harsher territories than he has been since the beginning of the film and it is perfectly imaginable that his defence mechanisms should go “the extra mile” to allow him to cope with reality. He is never closer to realising that Libby is the killer.
39. The characters’ lines of dialogue are ostentatiously preposterous because they all serve the obvious purpose of healing Peter. Ann accuses her husband “You killed them !” he answers “It was supposed to be you.” Jack comments on their past attempted murder “It should have been so simple.” Boyce answers “I went to the wrong goddam house. It was a mistake.” They have zero reason to speak about this right at that moment.
40. Both the killers use chloroform in order to send Ann and Peter to sleep. Peter is a writer, chloroform is a very old writing cliché.
41. Peter is put into the basement. I said earlier that Libby didn’t leave him any space. The basement represents Peter’s place. She paints the whole house, he paints the basement. It’s the place of his mind where he allowed himself to find his wife and daughters irritating and to foment things against them. That’s why the teenagers at the beginning of the movie transform it into a place of dark rituals, and why Ann end ups attached there too. Every part of Peter that could hurt is family is there.
42. Now, Jack and Boyce truly aren’t there. As I said earlier, Jack’s attitude is very understandable. He is not a bad guy. He was hurt and humiliated by his wife and he is now scared for his daughter. Boyce is more of a vigilante who watches on the suspicious crazy guy who came back to town. He is no killer. Peter uses them as scapegoats because they made it obvious that they consider him the killer. He thus transforms their suspicion in a motive => They want to pin the murders on him because truly, they are the killers. And the reasons why they are supposed to be the murderers are non-sensical.
43. Anyway, as they are in Peter’s imagination we can wonder why there needed to be two guys.
44. They each correspond to one of Peter’s guilt-inducing desires: hurting is wife is Jack. Hurting his daughters is the other guy. Remember, he is imagining all this in order to believe that he is innocent, therefore he should erase everything that makes him feel guilty.
45. Peter hurts Ann by trying to get rid of the guilt he feels for cheating on his wife. That’s why she is wounded at the end of the movie.
46. Jack murdering the child killer represents Peter eventually distanciating from the murder. He accepts the fact that he is not responsible. The adulterous husband is not the child killer.
47. Peter never dares put the blame on Libby even though deep inside he knows she is the murderer: when Jack kills his partner, Peter’s wife is showed jumping. She is supposed to be witnessing the death of the murderer of her two daughters, if her reaction had to be shown, it should have been at least a quiet approval. If she is showed jumping in empathy, it’s because she identifies with the child murderer. And as Libby, Jack and Boyce are all in Peter’s mind, it only means that he knows she is the killer.
48. Peter eventually saves Ann from the burning house and her daughter reappears. Isn’t she supposed to be at her dads ? Yes she is. But her dad has come back to kill her mother and her lover… such a good plan, making his daughter a witness. How believable is that ? The truth is that Peter has imagined Jack’s previous appearance in too. When he comes at Ann’s house (1h06min). It’s pretty obvious when you just give the idea a chance, the actor’s acting is very different from before. What’s important here is that it means that Peter has prepared the final mental showdown. He breaks into his house through a backdoor but also destroys the wooden boards that block the main entrance: he wants Ann to be able to come in.
49. After having saved Ann from the burning house, he comes back inside for the final confrontation with Libby. The moment when she could eventually confess her crime as the mistress was punished and Peter is now convinced that he is innocent. Sadly, Libby remains “selfish” up until the end and states “I’ll always be with you. But you know that” which isn’t what Peter would have hoped for. He cannot confront himself to the truth and therefore, cannot move on that which is understandable.
50. When he exits the house, a fireman asks him whether there’s still somebody inside. Peter answers “no.” I know they’ve killed his family but Peter isn’t supposed to be aware of both Jack and his friend’s death. Not a single shot is used to underline the moment when he realises that they’re dead. He should logically answer “yes” to this fireman. Plus, it’s not even logical that this question should be asked as Ann was necessarily asked the same one, and she most probably answered “Yes, there’s Peter Ward.”
51. Because Peter failed to bring Libby to confess that she murdered the girl, he now has to leave Ann and her daughter because it’ll otherwise become quickly obvious that the ex-husband is anything but dead, a discovery that would again confront Peter to the fact that he doesn’t want to know who murdered his daughters.
Peter's love for Ann isn't strong enough for him to fantasize Libby's confession. Or maybe, he only wanted to write a book. I don't like this ending. Ann's daughter is cool.
52. The movie started on him sacrificing his life as a writer because of his wife. It ends on him publishing a book and becoming a successful writer. There's a picture of him thinking in display. At the end of it all, Peter is stuck in an endless circle of meditation because he will never find the strength to accept the truth. It’s horrible.
But it’s a great film with 6% on rotten tomatoes.
Its sole problem is that on the one hand the obvious but wrong interpretation of the ending (Jack and Boyce being the killers) is made too unbearably stupid, and on the other hand the real interpretation asks for a very strong propensity to accept that everything that you see on screen can be unreal (but coherent).
In any case, the film could have been more succesful simply if what we had been told about it was: "Don't take the weird ending for granted. Look further." (And if the trailer had not spoiled important elements) (and if the director had not tried to have his name removed from it).