Few films are as imaginative and surreal as “What Dreams May Come.” From the very beginning, the film takes viewers through scene after scene of fantastic backdrops and warped, yet beautiful, landscapes. But beyond this stunning facade, the film has a much deeper purpose. It shows us how we grieve after a loss and eventually move through that intense trauma.
“What Dreams May Come” puts death at the forefront from the start of the film. A married couple, played by Robin Williams and Annabella Sciorra, have a beautiful life together with their two children. However, shortly after the film begins, the couple lose both of their children in a car crash. For the first act of the film, we see the characters struggle with this immense loss, each handling it differently. Sciorra’s character, Annie, can barely function after losing her children and grows distant from Williams’ character, Chris. Chris, in turn, feels an even greater sense of loss as their marriage falls apart.
At first, it seems as though “What Dreams May Come” will follow the usual style of a gritty, emotional drama about two people trying to mend after a shattering loss. However, the film takes a surreal turn when Chris dies in a car crash on the anniversary of his children’s deaths. From there on, we watch the film from Chris’ perspective as he navigates the afterlife.
The rest of the film takes place in this unusual, surreal world. We watch Chris learn the rules of his new home, including how he can remain connected to Annie from the afterlife. Chris reunites with some of his loved ones. And for the first time since the start of the film, it appears that the characters are finally starting to heal.
But this feeling doesn’t last. In the most important, heart-wrenching scene of “What Dreams May Come,” Annie, unable to cope with the loss of her children and her husband, commits suicide. At first, Chris thinks that Annie will now join him in the afterlife. But he soon learns that those who commit suicide must spend their afterlife in a self-created “hell.”
For a moment, I was concerned that the film was adding to the stigma that surrounds suicide. However, the writer takes a more nuanced approach to the subject than I expected. Williams’ character learns that those who commit suicide are not, in fact, being judged for it by some higher power. Instead, the film explains that many of those who commit suicide end up crafting an imaginary, miserable world in the afterlife. Chris spends the rest of the film trying to save Annie from this self-created hell.
In general, “What Dreams May Come” does a superb job sharing the characters’ emotions, making the audience feel the loss right alongside them. That said, it’s still difficult to watch the suicide-related scenes in the film. Although the film makes it clear that Annie isn’t being judged for her decision, it doesn’t portray those who commit suicide as blameless. For those who suffer from depression, scenes like this can come across as insensitive. In a way, the film still indirectly blames Annie for creating her own “hell.” This ignores the very real existence of depression and mental illness. People aren’t at fault for having these conditions, and the film never really makes this clear.
This is also a difficult film to watch knowing that Robin Williams died from suicide in 2014. In the aftermath of Williams’ death, it’s even harder to accept the film’s premise that those who commit suicide often construct their own hells. The film does bring in a much-needed message of hope at the end, yet this doesn’t completely excuse this treatment of suicide.
Problematic portrayal of suicide aside, “What Dreams May Come” is still an excellent film, both in its cinematography and its overall message of coping with loss. It’s not without its flaws, but it can still teach us a great deal about how it feels to lose the ones you love, and how you can heal from that pain.
If you are in crisis, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. The Lifeline is a national network of local crisis centers that provides free and confidential emotional support to people in suicidal crisis or emotional distress 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.
If someone you know exhibits warning signs of suicide, do not leave the person alone. Remove any firearms, alcohol, drugs or sharp objects that could be used in a suicide attempt and call the telephone number above. Alternatively, take the person to a local emergency room. If necessary, call 911 for help.