Stir of Echoes: Kevin Bacon attempts to unearth dark secrets in working-class Chicago

Disadvantage in dark suburbia casts a looming shadow over a man suddenly beset by terrifying visions in this 1999 thriller

• Stir of Echoes is streaming in Australia on Stan. For more recommendations of what to stream in Australia, click here

There aren’t many movies that feature working-class characters and the minutiae of working-class day-to-day life in quite the hauntingly recognisable way that director and screenwriter David Koepp has managed with Stir of Echoes. Koepp is perhaps better known for co-writing blockbusters like Mission: Impossible, as well as thrillers Panic Room and Snake Eyes, but this 1999 thriller is worth a rewatch for its masterful transformation of a mundane working-class neighbourhood into a place of menace.

Tom Witzky (Kevin Bacon) is a working-class man living an ordinary life in a blue-collar neighbourhood in Chicago. As he is becoming swallowed up by suburbia and the realisation that his dreams of being something more are not going to happen, something extraordinary happens. At a neighbourhood party, his sister-in-law Lisa convinces him to let her hypnotise him. The hypnosis taps him in to another frequency: suddenly, he can see spirits.

The new ability jolts Tom from his humdrum life and into action. As he battles to make sense of his post-hypnosis reality, not sure whether he is awake or asleep, a ghostly presence attempts to reach him. What do his visions mean? Is he imagining things, or are the disturbing images that begin to confront him during his day-to-day life portend something terrifyingly real?

Bacon slides into the role of the working-class hero without a hitch while Kathryn Erbe plays his loving wife Maggie, whose calm demeanour belies her strength. While Tom is burdened by his newfound abilities, and consumed by the disturbing questions that arise from them, he is also exhilarated to have broken out of the mould of someone who comes home from work, sits on the couch nursing his beer until falling into a stupor in bed, and waking to repeat the same ritual.

Kathryn Erbe and Kevin Bacon in Stir of Echoes.
Kathryn Erbe and Kevin Bacon in Stir of Echoes. Photograph: United Archives/Alamy

Tom and Maggie are befriended by a couple sliding into middle age: the husband is lecherous and living out his glory days through his son; the wife is long-suffering and seeking moments of refinement in the chaos. This couple represents a future that Tom and Maggie might be heading for – stuck in a stale marriage as their resentment grows because of giving up their dreams, living for their children as they count down the days – were it not for Tom’s abilities.

Koepp’s scene-setting in suburban Chicago is one of the most compelling things about this film. Tom Maggie are newcomers into a neighbourhood where residents all look out for each other. There are regular neighbourhood parties, with Chicago’s L (or “elevated”) train line floating above in the background, looming over the neighbourhood, the squeal of the rails a soundtrack over the revelry. The neighbours mingle, middle-aged men sharing tips for retirement to those who are with young children. Alcohol is a feature of their everyday life, with violence always a breath away as alcohol fumes spread. Yet the tall, narrow, century-old greystone houses tower over the scene. Is Tom’s new ability related to something happening in the neighbourhood?

While the machismo and violence of the neighbourhood provides the increasing tension throughout this thriller, there is a strong feminist through-line too. Maggie subverts the stereotype of the meek wife and mother as she fights to find out what is fracturing her family. The quips and banter from Maggie’s college-educated sister Lisa (Illeana Douglas) demonstrate the binary between those whose education offered them opportunities and those who completed just enough school to get back-breaking jobs.

I have watched and rewatched this movie at least 10 times in the two decades since it was released, and while the distinct Chicago skyline could not be further from where I grew up, I recognise so much of the swagger and machismo of the men, the financial woes that grind away at these families, the use of alcohol to lubricate and make this reality palatable, and the seething violence just under the surface.

Amra Pajalic

The GuardianTramp

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