Bruce McDonald’s Dreamland is Driven by a Hazy, Dreamlike Logic
Bruce McDonald’s Dreamland is, for good or ill, on its own very particular wavelength. A strange mix of noir atmosphere and surrealism, the film seems to continue the path McDonald walked with 2015’s Hellions, with dreamlike atmospheres laid over otherwise typical genre fare. But while Hellions applied this new fascination with the surreal to horror, Dreamland turns its focus onto hard-boiled crime. Or at least, that’s the closest reference point one can make out through Dreamland’s odd, singular landscape. It’s a film that very much walks to the beat of its own drum. If that rhythm is one you can get in step with, it can be an interesting and sometimes engrossing experience. If not, McDonald’s latest effort may leave you cold.
Stephen McHattie stars in a dual role, on the one hand playing an aging and soft-spoken gun for hire, and on the other a strung-out trumpet player. The Killer is distraught to discover that his boss, played by Henry Rollins, has begun trafficking in children, a line the aging assassin won’t cross. The Trumpet Player, meanwhile, is staying in the extravagant castle of a local countess, preparing to perform at her brother’s wedding. Her brother, incidentally, is a vampire in full Nosferatu mode, and everyone seems to take this as normal. The paths of these two men seem strangely an inexplicably linked, and the Killer’s blood-splattered path to redemption brings them ever closer together.
Appropriately for its title, Dreamland is a film driven by a hazy, dreamlike logic. Set against an unnamed Eastern European city and refusing to elaborate on its exact time period, the film is awash with odd moments and unexplained quirks. In one scene, a wife implores the Trumpet Player to kill her husband, as the dumbfounded husband looks on no less. A half-hour or more later we see them again, the previous encounter seemingly behind them. This comes mere seconds after the Killer barely escapes from a squad of hitmen, none of them over thirteen years old.
The Killer and the Trumpet Player’s strange link is never elaborated on, but in one key scene, the Trumpet Player’s distinctive black fingernail materializes on the Killer for no reason given. And again, there’s that vampire. It’s a weird, weird movie, and that weirdness will either endear it to you or alienate you. It rarely feels too much like an affectation, but it’s also really hard to discern what’s driving it all, what it all means. Is it just weird for the sake of it? Perhaps, and it’s understandable to get turned off by that. But there’s also enough atmosphere, enough offbeat charm, and enough sheer uniqueness of vision to make it worth trying at least.
McHattie, for his part, is marvelous as the two leads, playing two distinct shades of a haunted loner sometimes directly opposite one another. The Killer, with his long black hair and hard-boiled attitude, could almost be mistaken for an aging John Wick, and the strange criminal underworld he inhabits backs up the comparison more than a little. The Trumpet Player, who is less seen but no less engrossing, is the prototypical burned-out artist — never seeming quite in his right mind. Henry Rollins, meanwhile, does a decent but unremarkable turn as Hercules, a short-fused and morally bankrupt gang boss. It’s not a demanding role, but the former Black Flag frontman wears it well. Juliette Lewis plays the Countess, and gives her all to what ends up as a fairly insubstantial role. McHattie’s Pontypool costar Lisa Houle pulls up the rear in an underdeveloped role as Lisa, a character who probably had much more to do in a previous draft. It’s never quite clear who she is or what her relationship to anyone else is, making her character feel like an afterthought.
Dreamland is one of those movies that in many ways defines categorization, and that uniqueness and defiance of convention is its primary selling point. The odds are that you haven’t seen a movie quite like this before, and that promise of a unique experience could be enough to draw a lot of people in. Dreamland presents a singular vision, brought into reality with enthusiasm from all involved. It’s most assuredly not for everyone, but McDonald’s commitment to telling his story in his voice are sure to win it some fans.
Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on July 17 as part of our coverage of the Fantasia Film Festival. Dreamland is now available on VOD.