Dreamland is the latest offering from beloved Canadian director Bruce McDonald, of fan favorite Pontypool and, more recently, the delightfully festive yet divisive Hellions, fame. The movie’s synopsis confidently proclaims, “On the night of the strangest wedding in cinema history, a grotesque gang boss hires a stone cold killer to bring him the finger of a fading, drug-addicted jazz legend.” Sure, that’s one way of putting it. Before the wedding happens, though – in the last 20 minutes of the movie, to be clear – there’s a whole lot of other stuff going on that makes little to no sense and, after just a short time, becomes both utterly boring and intensely irritating.
The film boasts quite a rock star cast, with hardcore legend Henry Rollins and Juliette Lewis taking starring roles. Pontypool star Stephen McHattie, meanwhile, plays two characters though thankfully that annoying moment of someone pointing out, “Hey, you look like that other guy” doesn’t occur. He wears a wig as hitman Johnny (his name is left mysteriously unsaid until the very end, which is odd because another character is called Hercules so anything less than that is bound to be disappointing) and slicked back hair as the aforementioned heroin addict trumpet player, who doesn’t get a name but is sometimes referred to as “maestro” by the people around him.
The setting is Luxembourg, which offers Dreamland an element of the uniqueness it so desperately craves, but nothing much is done with the surrounding area and it isn’t captured particularly well by cinematographer Richard Van Oosterhout (who also shot the gorgeous Love & Friendship, which suggests it wasn’t entirely his fault and the movie’s off-putting ugliness may be deliberate). There, Johnny offs dudes for local kingpin Hercules (Rollins, electric with a shaved head and sparkly jacket though not quite as intimidating as he is when he’s ranting about equal rights) but, when his Al Qaeda club (really) starts trafficking girls into sex slavery, Johnny says no more.
Unfortunately, he’s been tasked with retrieving the pinkie finger of the trumpeter, leading Johnny to crash the biggest wedding in town, at an actual palace, led by an actual Countess (Lewis, having way too much fun devouring the scenery), to do so while also rescuing his young neighbour from the clutches of a vampire named The Count. Just in case the many references to a literal bloodsucker aren’t blindingly obvious enough, actor Tómas Lemarquis shows up looking like he’s just lost a role in What We Do in the Shadows to someone less hammy, brandishing fangs and gurning at everyone in sight. He’s supposed to be scary but he’s just annoying. Like everything else in this movie.
The main problem with Dreamland is it’s not nearly as clever, inventive or even, yes, weird as it thinks it is. The fact the synopsis boasts about the “strangest wedding in cinema history” showcases the movie’s laughable delusions of grandeur. The set-up is deceptively simple – a hitman gone soft has to save a little girl from the clutches of a lunatic while also defying his terrifying boss – but frequently feels impenetrable. There are so many excursions that go absolutely nowhere, scenes dragging on interminably as characters gab on at length about nothing in particular, that it’s nar impossible to invest in anything that’s happening onscreen. This is more of a mood piece, or even a tone poem, than a cohesive story and your enjoyment of it will depend heavily on how much you’re willing to drift along aimlessly with it.
At a push, and being very generous, Dreamland could be taken as a parable about how messed up and out of touch the super-rich really are. When Hercules straps on a sharp tuxedo to attend the wedding, he can hardly contain his delight at being surrounded by such opulence but it’s clear none of the diplomats or high-flying criminals in the room are ever going to accept him as one of their own – he might be the king down at the Al Qaeda but, when there are people with actual power involved, he barely even registers. Likewise the dishevelled Johnny barely causes a ripple even when he sits at the top table in front of everyone. The title of the movie hints that this is an alternate reality, but there’s no reason to believe high-ranking officials aren’t snorting coke from silver platters and brandishing their massive guns behind closed doors. There’s a point here somewhere, maybe.
Strip away all the pretentious, phony, try-hard avant-garde trappings and there’s not a huge amount of depth to Dreamland, never mind anything solid to cling to or anybody to root for. Johnny’s young charge is presented as a blank slate, interchangeable with all the other kids Hercules keeps locked up in his basement, which is a queasy way to represent child sex slavery, even in a horror movie, but one that also robs the protagonist’s journey of any urgency. His reaction to Hercules’ new business model doesn’t even really make sense. Why is he so shocked, when he’s made a living for years killing people for money? Johnny, too, is such a blank slate that his motivations rarely make sense, particularly when he tries to trick Hercules by bringing him the wrong man’s finger.
This is a softer role, or rather roles, for McHattie and the veteran actor, most recently seen in the genuinely weird Come to Daddy, communicates a lifetime of regret behind his sad eyes. The lines etched on his face suggest unimaginable hardship and difficulty, as though Johnny is constantly wrestling with his own demons even as he tries to do the right thing. He’s haunted by visions of blood-covered children (too on the nose, and not done especially well either), making it clear he feels responsible even when the blood isn’t literally on his hands. Still, even a great actor like McHattie can only do so much. The moments when he’s the sullen, one-note (no pun intended) trumpeter, on the other hand, grind the film to a complete halt. The character has just one trait, he’s a drug addict, and outside of that it’s just a lot of staring into space and mumbling stuff someone, somewhere wrongly believes to be deep and meaningful.
Rollins, meanwhile, booms out of the movie, his unmistakable voice appearing early on over the telephone. Dreamland could have done with more of both him and Lewis to liven things up as, by the time we finally get to the wedding, it feels more like attending a funeral than anything else. McDonald and his screenwriters, Tony Burgess (who also wrote Pontypool) and newcomer Patrick Whistler, seem intent on making a moody Lynchian noir, but there’s nothing memorable or even odd enough here to shine the great man’s shoes. When it comes down to it, there’s nothing remarkable about Dreamland at all but one class of viewer will surely herald it as a masterpiece that you just don’t understand, man.
Question any alleged film fan who believes this turgid movie to be great art. The Count truly isn’t wearing any clothes.
Catch Dreamland On Demand and Digital from Friday, June 5, 2020
WICKED RATING: 3/10
Director(s): Bruce McDonald
Writer(s): Tony Burgess, Patrick Whistler
Stars: Stephen McHattie, Henry Rollins, Juliette Lewis
Release date: June 5, 2020
Studio/Production Company: Calach Films
Run Time: 92 minutes