It would be all too easy to trash Cold Creek Manor, to suggest it's an artiste's failed return to the mainstream after years of self-exile in Avant-Gardeland shortly after he left Las Vegas with Oscar's blessings. But assume for a moment that Figgis, culling elements from such disparate films as Cape Fear (a muscular, tattooed stalker menacing a family), Poltergeist (a woman submerged in a pit of soggy corpses) and Affliction (a grizzled, abusive father), didn't set out to make a spooky movie. Giving the director very generous benefit of the doubt, his is a hopeful movie about the decay and potential repair of the American family.
In the beginning, it's suggested that the marriage of Cooper (Dennis Quaid) and Leah (Stone) Tilson is an unhappy one. She's an upwardly mobile executive willing to go down on her boss for a promotion; he's a would-be Ken Burns making documentaries about New York buildings. One day, their son, Jesse (Ryan Wilson), is nearly run down by a petulant motorist, convincing Cooper it's time to hightail it to the countryside.
One afternoon they find themselves at the chained gates of Cold Creek Manor, a sort of overgrown, rundown Gosford Park. The previous owners left in haste: Clothes still hang in closets, and framed on the walls are eerie pictures of creepy men doing evil deeds. Everything about the rotting house says, "Stay the hell away," which, of course, the Tilsons do not. They're the kind of people who go into a dark room when they hear something go bump and absolutely refuse to turn on a light. Figgis wants this couple to get what they deserve.
Coop, having nothing better to do, decides to make a documentary about the home using the discarded refuse of its previous owners -- one of whom, Dale (Stephen Dorff), shows up after a three-year stint in jail and convinces the Tilsons to hire him as a handyman. This leads to several scenes of the shirtless, sweaty Dale mowing the lawn and flirting with Leah while eyeing the Tilson's daughter (Kristen Stewart).
After the Tilsons put together the one plus one the audience added up during the first fifteen minutes, they become a real couple -- but only after she starts trusting him and realizes that, duh, Dale may be a bad guy after all. It's a subtle note in a deafeningly dull movie, but it's there nonetheless -- the most romantic thing Figgis has ever said trapped inside the dumbest thing he's ever made.