An Essay On The Movie Dragonfly

Dr. Joe Darrow will have quite a story to tell his colleagues when he returns to duty in the Chicago Memorial Hospital emergency room. That is, if he ever goes back.

His tale starts off tragically, with a marital disagreement he won’t forget. Though he and his wife Emily (who is also a doctor) had once vowed to do anything necessary to help the most needy and teach their children to do the same, Joe refuses to go to Venezuela with her on a Red Cross mission. Maybe he’s too tied to his job; maybe he’s just adamant about not wanting her to go now that she’s expecting their first child. Tragically, his fears are validated. During an emergency evacuation from a remote village, the bus Emily is on is swept over the side of a ravine by a mudslide. The accident yields no survivors. Joe is devastated. To cope with the loss of his soul-mate, he throws himself into his work, pulling 24-hour shifts and shutting off his emotions. He’s snaps at his colleagues, and he’s beginning to make some questionable judgment calls in the line of duty. The hospital administrator (who seems to be acting more from contempt than compassion) strong-arms Joe into taking a leave of absence to deal with his loss.

Finally forced to face reality, Joe rejects the comfort of his friends and an acquaintance’s offer of free grief counseling. The reason why he and Emily had made such a great team is that they complemented each other perfectly—he was the "head;" she was the "heart." With her gone, he’s stuck with just his own cold rationalism. His neighbor, a no-nonsense law professor named Miriam, understands his penchant for dealing with "just the facts." Together, they process the physical reminders of Emily that seem to be almost omnipresent for him. But when Joe starts visiting Emily’s patients in the pediatric oncology ward, the reminders become much more than physical. With each near-death experience Joe witnesses, it becomes more clear that Emily is trying to contact him from beyond the grave. Young cancer patients emerge from comas with messages from her, beckoning him to come to where she is. Free from his hospital responsibilities, Joe sets out to find her. With each step of his journey, he comes closer to getting in touch with his deceased wife. And closer to a discovery that will alter the rest of his life.

positive content: Despite the argument that begins their fatal misadventure, Joe and Emily’s marriage is a loving, passionate and committed one. He calls her "my ultimate partner" and gives a big nod to the idea of spouses’ strengths complementing each other. (Why is it that when this kind of marriage shows up in a movie, one of the partners always dies within the first 15 minutes?) Even after his wife’s death, Joe says, "I need to live up to my promises to her." In context, this is particularly meaningful, because he’s talking about a promise that won’t exactly be enjoyable to keep.

Emily is willing to sacrifice comfort and safety for the sake of helping people in need. Whether children dying of cancer or poor villagers in Venezuela, Emily truly cares for those whom she serves. Later, it is evident that her efforts have made a permanent impact on many lives. In addition, Joe learns a lesson about keeping a balance in his work. Sure, the medical field requires level-headedness, but it also demands compassion.

spiritual content: The dead Emily uses patients who have had near-death experiences to communicate with Joe. Several of them describe meeting her in a tunnel, in a mist or in a rainbow. In recounting his experience "on the other side," one young cancer patient seemingly channels Emily again, speaking with words that aren’t his own.

As Joe tries to resolve these disturbing events, several possible explanations are given as to what the phenomena might mean. To give viewers an idea of where Joe stands at the beginning of his quest, a conversation with a suicidal patient is shown in which Joe says, "Let me tell you about that better place [you think] you’re going to—you better be d--n sure it’s there. . . . As crappy as this place is, it’s all there is." From this and other statements, it’s clear that Joe does not believe in any kind of life after death, unless it’s another life here on earth (A flashback shows a conversation in which he and Emily discuss reincarnation).

Joe’s buddies demonstrate a "works theology" when they speak of heaven and say "If anyone deserved to go there, it was Emily." Rational Miriam approaches the situation from a lawyer’s perspective. She believes "nothing is real without evidence" and chalks Joe’s strange encounters up to mind games played on him by his grief. Joe’s brother takes a similar naturalistic view, explaining the "tunnel" experience in terms of optical science (he’s an eye surgeon). The hospital administrator thinks Joe’s actions are due to irrationality and perhaps even psychiatric problems.

A nun who did research on near-death experiences has the most detailed explanation for what she thinks happens after death. After spending time in Emily’s cancer ward she has concluded, "In an age where no one believes in miracles anymore, I was witnessing miracles every day." Unfortunately, her religious background and language turn out to be just icons rather than connections to higher truth. She goes on to tell Joe that just as he became a doctor because he once imagined he could be one, so our determination that there is a spiritual world somehow makes it so. "If we can create this world with what we imagine, then why not the next? Belief gets us there." It is this faulty (and illogical) assessment that gives Joe the hope he needs to keep trying to contact Emily.

As a prompt for discussion, these varying viewpoints (all of which are commonly held today) are great material. As a source of truth, they’re dreadfully lacking. In an attempt to make a heartwarming statement about the power of faith, Dragonfly forgets that faith has to be a belief in what is true, not just belief for its own sake.

sexual content: Joe and Emily are shown embracing. He buries his head in her bosom and then begins to remove her camisole (this scene serves partly to reveal the birthmark on her shoulder (it resembles the dragonfly which comes to represent her in the film). In a playful conversation, Emily suggests that they’ll have to have sex enough in this life to make up for the possibility that they won’t be able to in future lives (when they are reincarnated as beasts of the field or birds of the air). As Miriam expresses empathy toward Joe, their conversation implies that she is a lesbian who has lost a long-time lover. Nothing explicit is shown or mentioned. Venezuelan natives are shown in tribal garb, with a few breasts exposed.

violent content: A bus careens over an embankment into a river. Bodies are shown floating downstream and people are shown trapped underwater. Emily’s pet parrot goes ballistic in the middle of the night, flying in Joe’s face and wreaking havoc on the kitchen. In the E.R., a deceased patient awaits the harvesting of organs. Multiple wounds appear on his body. Joe defies hospital orders to try to make contact with Emily and has to be forcibly detained. Venezuelan natives hold a man at bay with spears and arrows. While not violent or gory, a handful of scenes are abrupt and shocking and may scare viewers who don’t like to be surprised.

crude or profane language: About ten mild profanities and three misuses of the Lord’s name. Joe has a bad habit of calling the hospital administrator an a--hole.

drug and alcohol content: Joe and his friends go to a bar after work and drink beer. They also have wine with dinner. Joe has a beer at home.

conclusion: With appropriately paced action and some gorgeous aerial shots of Venezuelan waterfalls, Dragonfly’s production values are decent. It’s not The Sixth Sense or The Others, but minor plot gaps notwithstanding, it’s quite watchable. Actually, that there are enough recent films in this category to prompt a comparison is itself noteworthy. The proliferation of supernatural "figure-it-out" flicks (not to mention supernaturally obsessed TV shows like Crossing Over) underscores society’s fascination with the afterlife and "the other world." Unlike some of its horror-drenched counterparts, Dragonfly meets these inquiries by actually broaching the subject of heaven. But par for the course, it doesn’t leave viewers with any solid evidence about the nature of or road to such a place. This film gets credit for asking all the right questions, but deserves a swat for a smattering of foul language and for failing to produce the right answers.

''Dragonfly'' is the second movie released in the last month with a supernatural theme and a title that refers to a winged insect. The first was ''The Mothman Prophecies,'' which also, come to think of it, starred a middle-aged actor as a cocksure professional mourning his dead wife and, in the face of great skepticism, receiving messages from the other side. Spooky, isn't it?

Actually, ''Dragonfly'' isn't. Unlike ''Mothman,'' this vehicle for Kevin Costner's unlimited talent for conveying self-righteous self-pity takes a benevolent view of the great beyond. Apart from a few cheap horror-movie tricks -- a dead boy's eyes suddenly pop open; otherworldly voices and dissonant musical effects rumble up from the bowels of the theater's Dolby system; sudden gusts of wind awaken the hero in the middle of the night -- the director, Tom Shadyac, steers the material toward maudlin melodrama of the kind he ladled out so liberally in ''Patch Adams.''

In ''Dragonfly,'' as in ''Patch Adams,'' much of the action takes place in a pediatric oncology ward. But whereas Robin Williams's irrepressibly menschy physician was interested in bringing cheer to the dying, Dr. Joe Darrow (Mr. Costner), morose and grief-stricken, wants to pump them for information about the dead. During the opening credits, Joe's wife, Emily (Susanna Thompson), a radiantly pregnant cancer specialist, dies in a bus accident in the jungles of Venezuela, where she has gone on an emergency relief mission. Now, six months later, Joe begins to think she is trying to communicate with him using children who have had near-death experiences (and who seem to have smuggled shafts of blinding celestial light back with them).

Given the state of astral communication, which has advanced very little since the spirit-rappers and seances of the 19th century, I think that if I were a dead person trying to get an urgent message to a still-living loved one, I would do my utmost to make the message as clear and unambiguous as possible. But the late Emily Darrow, having become a typically passive-aggressive movie ghost, prefers to leave a series of cryptic and baffling clues, including a wobbly cross drawn by her young former patients, who tell Joe that they saw her ''inside the rainbow.'' She also knocks a dragonfly paperweight on the floor and spooks her beloved pet parrot.

My screening companion provided a thorough and amazingly accurate plot summary of the entire movie before the first half-hour was done. It takes Joe much longer. He must contend with a heartless hospital administrator (Joe Morton) who doesn't like his lurking around the cancer ward scaring the children, with his own skepticism and with a priest who has him arrested when he seeks the counsel of Sister Madeline (Linda Hunt), a nun with vast knowledge of near-death experiences.

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