The film opens with a Mayan archaeologist talking with Sally, a six-year-old American girl. "Why do people dream?" she asks. "To see things better," he replies. He then tells her the story of how the great grandmother of light gave some special children the power to see everything in their dreams where "there are no words," "Why are there no words?" Sally wants to know. "Because it is easier to see without words," he answers.
House of Cards is a stunning and compelling exploration of the power of the imaginal world the nonverbal realm of dreams and imagery. This inner space proves to be as mysterious, as awesome, and as challenging as the outer space of the watershed film 2001: A Space Odyssey. Michael Lessac, who wrote and directed this absorbing drama, has made one of the best films ever about the reality of parallel universes.
Ruth Matthews (Kathleen Turner), an architect, is preparing to return home from Mexico with her two children, Michael (Shiloh Strong), an adolescent, and Sally (Asha Menina). Her husband, an archaeologist, has fallen to his death while working on a Mayan ruin. Sensing young Sally's bewilderment over the loss of her dad, a Mayan friend (Joaquin Martinez) assures her that "people don't die. They go from one home to another."
Back in the States, Michael is the first one to spot Sally's unusual behavior when she fearlessly climbs out on the roof of their house to retrieve his airplane and a baseball. She is also not talking. Her refusal to communicate at school brings Dr. Jake Beerlander (Tommy Lee Jones), a child psychologist, to their home. He observes that Sally's silence and her odd scream are classic symptoms of autism and indicate that she needs immediate treatment. Ruth, however, is convinced that Sally's behavior is related to the culture shock of returning home after three years in Mexico.
One night, Ruth discovers her daughter sitting in the center of an elaborate house of cards she has constructed out of playing cards, pictures of the family, and tarot cards, including "The Tower" and "The Moon." She shows Jake pictures of this creative construction and challenges him to recognize that this is the work of a gifted child who is simply communicating in a different way.
In response, he gives her a tour of his clinic where behavior modification techniques and play therapy are being used with boys and girls who have withdrawn from the world. Many of these children are "gifted" in one way or another but they are incapable of such ordinary expressions of love as embracing their parents. "Miracles wear awfully thin around here," Jake tells Ruth. "Normal is awesome." Before long, however, even this traditional clinician's views will be challenged by the little girl whose creativity both confounds and amazes him.
Ruth remains determined to find a way into Sally's world. She reconstructs the house of cards on her computer and then uses a "Virtual Reality" head and glove set to enter it. She believes that if she can see through Sally's eyes, she can reach her and bring her back. Going one step further, she constructs a huge model of the house of cards a tower of steel on her property.
This extraordinary film acknowledges and honors the mysterious and powerful qualities of the imaginal world. The realm to which Sally has retreated is as real as the sensory empirical world of her brother and the noetic world of abstract intellect which is so ardently championed by Dr. Beerlander. Ruth understands this truth. In the thrilling climax of the film, she takes the important step of actually meeting Sally in the dream world.
The film also appreciates the healing arts of shamans who have been bridge builders between the worlds for centuries. The Mayan archaeologist ushers Sally into a silent universe where she can work on her grief and reach out to her father. Ruth has the best chance of making contact with her daughter there because she realizes that imagination is the bridge into the imaginal world.
Finally, House of Cards is one of the few films in recent memory to show deep respect for the spirituality of children. Sally's journey into the far country of loss is neither sentimentalized nor trivialized. It is writer and director Lessac's hope that we will learn to listen to and enter into the imaginative worlds of children with the same sensitivity and ardor as Ruth does in this film. Their lives would be enriched immeasurably, and so would ours.