We can’t talk about the new Bruce McDonald film Dreamland without talking about other movies first. It’s not just that the film traffics in a post-modern, post-Tarantino mish-mash style that furiously goes about stapling together disparate genre elements (most explicitly gangster movies and the ever-present looming spectre of jazz) together. It’s that Dreamland eventually moves into sending up and deconstructing exactly the kind of movie it appears to be on the surface.
Though it would be simple to just call Dreamland second-rate Lynch and leave it at that, there’s both more going on here and less lofty ideals than one might expect. Where a lot of these films (recent examples off the top of my head include Terminal, Passion Play, Hotel Artemis and Mute) fail is in their absolute lack of a sense of humour; even the ones that are would-be black comedies tend to fall completely up their own assholes in a smug acceptance of irony as the end-all be-all. Dreamland, to its complete and utter benefit, is a film that both wallows in grotesque clichés and seeks to upend them.
Johnny (Stephen McHattie) works as a hitman in a lightly futuristic Luxembourg. Johnny’s main client is Hercules (Henry Rollins), a despotic strip-club owner and pimp who has connived his way into making Johnny kill whoever stood between him and the possibility of adding underage children to the bevy of products available in his imaginatively named nightclub, Al-Qaeda. Johnny isn’t too keen on these recent developments; as a grizzled, weird hitman in a movie about a grizzled, weird hitman, he has a particular code of conduct that does not include children. Nevertheless, Johnny is forced by Hercules to do one last job: he’s to chop the pinky finger off of a visiting jazz trumpeter who disrespected Hercules by asking for his name when giving him his autograph. The problem is that the trumpeter (also played by McHattie in one of the film’s many flights of meta-fuckery fancy) is in town to play a wedding between Johnny’s 14-year-old neighbour and the vampiric brother (Tomas Lemarquis) of the town’s countess (Juliette Lewis), which makes him somewhat hard to access — and that, for whatever reason, Johnny finds himself incapable of going through with the job.
McDonald’s career has always been iconoclastic and somewhat lacking a throughline; if he’s made at least one (if not a few) of the great rock movies in history, he’s also made his share of somewhat anonymous work and uneven genre exercises. The movie that Dreamland reminds me the most of is Picture Claire, another film that adopted the clichés of a particularly hoary and creatively bankrupt subgenre (the DTV chase thriller circa 2001) with such vehement faith that it had to be a desire for subversion. If Picture Claire is indeed an experiment in something or other, it is a failed one — which is not the case for Dreamland, a film that manages to weave the artificiality of its premise, the ponderous nature of its writing and the deliberately ornate and wooden dialogue at its core into something that, while not exactly subversive, definitely works in an odd way.
Part of the reason Dreamland succeeds beyond its weird-for-weird’s-sake vibe is the way that McDonald will lean into corniness in one scene and completely deflate it in the other. The world does not need yet another movie about a smacked-out white guy who plays the trumpet, and the way the character of the Maestro is treated here is curiously devoid of introspection or subversion. Conversely, almost everything with the Hercules character is deliberately overblown and rigidly cartoonish, completely off-setting the much more measured performances that McHattie is given. Frankly, in most cases, all of this would come across as a haphazard and tonally inconsistent mess, but there’s something to the dosage and the attitude here that makes Dreamland much more enjoyable — and much funnier — than it promises to be initially.
McHattie is clearly, at this point, something of a grizzled old muse for Bruce McDonald. Dreamland, in a sense, feels like an excuse to fully explore the bruised aura that McHattie is often asked to dole out in smallish doses elsewhere. Though ostensibly some pretty showy roles (most dual roles are), McHattie is by far the most restrained aspect of an otherwise gonzo and bugnuts exercise.
If there’s a real flaw to Dreamland — or a reason why it remains just a fitfully amusing bit of genre wankery — it’s that for all its bells and whistles, it is about spectacularly little. Some have surmised that the film is a not-so-subtle dig at Jeffrey Epstein and Ghislaine Maxwell and the way their malevolence was completely accepted and even applauded by the elites, but that seems more coincidental than anything else. The turmoil faced by the characters seems mainly aesthetic turmoil; it is turmoil for the sake of looking like you’re in turmoil above all else. Dreamland is mainly surface — shiny baubles and loud noises and the sharp glint of metal — but it does it better than most. ■
Dreamland is on VOD as of Friday, May 29. Watch the trailer here:
See more details about Dreamland here.
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