AKA Bruce McDonald’s Dreamland
DIRECTED BY: Bruce McDonald
FEATURING: , Henry Rollins, Juliette Lewis, Lisa Houle, Tómas Lemarquis
PLOT: A burnt-out trumpeting virtuoso is to play at the wedding at the castle of a disgraced countess, while a burnt-out hitman has a crisis of conscience when he discovers his boss is trafficking young girls.
WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: Having Stephen McHattie double-act as two soul-crushed sides of the same tarnished coin lends Dreamland its own oddness, but that is almost subsumed as a manic climax erupts at a sinister wedding between a nut job who thinks he’s a vampire and girl of fourteen. However, it’s the overall—you guessed it—“dreaminess” of the movie, grounded in an altogether real pathos, that makes Dreamland much weirder than its fellow bad-guy-gets-redemption tales.
COMMENTS: The ending credits for Bruce McDonald’s latest movie gave notice that it was “filmed on location in Dreamland.” Were I not somewhat familiar with major European cities, I might have had half a mind to believe it. The non-specific geography encapsulates the overall atmosphere of Dreamland: strange goings-on in a shabby metropolis at the foot of an imposing, high-walled fortress. The neon grit of the atmosphere feels like it was scraped off the cracking leather shoes of the protagonist after having just stomped through mean streets on mean business.
Dreamland starts with a montage flourish of well-heeled and well-armed degenerates leaving an airport and climbing into an awaiting limosine. Having just looked at some Tinder-style photos of young girls, a very bad man gets half a sentence out before being shot in the head by his limo driver—none other than our nameless hero (Stephen McHattie). Defiant, with his scraggly haircut and gumshoe get up straight from the ’70s, he’s rewarded with a fat wad of cash from his boss Hercules (Henry Rollins), then with the unfortunate revelation that Hercules has just branched out into the kiddie-prostitution business. The nameless gunman’s next assignment: collecting and delivering the “right pinkie finger” of a disgraced trumpet player (Stephen McHattie) for an alleged slight against Hercules. When visited by a young boy whose sister went missing, the assassin knows the girl’s fate: to be married off to the deranged brother-in-law of local royalty. The hitman, having hit bottom, decides to take a stand.
Whether or not Dreamland would work hinged on two things: the effectiveness of the stylized haze of thought and vision between set pieces, and Stephen McHattie’s ability to convince as the two leads. The latter first. In both roles, McHattie conjures a Dashell Hammet archetype of the world-weary man, with each character having its own twist. While the trumpet player’s mind has been ground down (in his case, by heroin), it’s the hitman’s soul that has been hit hard. Combined, they’d make a perfectly broken Sam Spade, and watching them talk with each other is simultaneously eerie and hilarious. This ties in with the stylized interludes: the killer is struck by haunting visions, and the musician is “able to be in two places at once.” Their paths keep crossing, and the hitman’s fight for what is right contrasts with his counterparts shame at not being able to take any action.
Reading that back to myself, I realize some fairly heavy stuff went on in Dreamland, yet the film spins along in a vibrant fashion. Garish nightclubs merge with dispiriting city streets and homicidal pawnbroker’s wives aid against gun-toting boy gangs; but the image of McHattie’s face—either as the haunted gun man or the wryly smiling maestro—dominates. And once again I find myself making this sound heavy. I suppose that heavy it may be; but it is also, one might say, dreamy.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“Canadian director Bruce McDonald serves up a beautifully imagined and gorgeously realized offering with his latest film, the genre-blending Dreamland. With its story of two very different men who look hauntingly alike and an act of violence that causes them to meet, the film mixes surrealism, horror, fantasy, and modern noir.” -Joseph Perry, Diabolique Magazine (festival screening)