American Fable is ambitious, maybe too much so sometimes, but there's an intense pleasure in the boldness of the film's style.
Desperation sometimes brings with it a certain clarity. Early in "Dream With the Fishes,'' a character is balanced on a bridge, ready to commit suicide by throwing himself off, when he's interrupted by a stickup man who asks for his wristwatch: "Since you're going to be dead in a few minutes anyway, what use will it be to you?'' The would-be suicide is named Terry (David Arquette). The stickup guy is Nick (Brad Hunt). "Could I have some privacy?'' Terry asks. That's ironic, since in the opening scenes we've seen that Terry is a peeping tom who spies on his neighbors with binoculars, and his favorite subjects are Nick and his girlfriend Liz (Kathryn Erbe).
From this unlikely Meet Cute, "Dream With the Fishes'' generates a free-ranging road and buddy movie that, with its use of drugs and counterculture spirit, could be a '70s production--made when characters could slip through a movie without carrying a lot of plot along with them.
Terry climbs down off the bridge after Nick paints an unpleasant picture ("Hitting the water from this height, it will be like hitting concrete''). Nick makes a better offer: In return for the watch, he'll give Terry enough pills to finish himself off. But the offer is a fraud, the pills are vitamins, and the two opposites gradually, warily become friends. If this sounds too easy, it doesn't feel that way in Finn Taylor's movie because the screenplay goes for an edgy, elegiac tone, and we suspect that both men are carrying more secrets than they're willing to reveal.
Motivated by Nick's deteriorating health and a bargain the two of them strike, they embark on a journey. There are adventures in the spirit of the old road movies, an unplanned robbery, and even an acid trip involving a cop who pulls his gun and shoots some doughnuts dead. Their destination is Nick's childhood home, where his father, Joe (J.E. Freeman), slams the door on him. Joe has apparently had enough of his son for one lifetime, and after he finally lets him into the house we guess the nature of their relationship from a painful shoulder-butting contest.