'Dreamland': Film Review

Dreamland Still 2 - Publicity -H 2020
Uncork'd Entertainment/Dark Star Pictures
Perfect for the drive-in theaters where it will now find itself playing.

Stephen McHattie plays the two lead roles in 'Pontypool' director Bruce McDonald's gonzo noir fantasy, also featuring Henry Rollins and Juliette Lewis.

The latest film from iconoclastic Canadian filmmaker Bruce McDonald proves at least one thing: The only thing better than Stephen McHattie in a movie is two Stephen McHatties. Playing both a heroin-addicted jazz trumpet player and a hitman who develops a conscience, the veteran character actor — you'll immediately recognize his face even if his name doesn't ring any bells — grounds Dreamland in emotional depths it otherwise strains to achieve.

McDonald is best known for his cult 2008 zombie horror film Pontypool, of which this film is a sort of spiritual successor. The aptly named Dreamland also reunites the director with that film's star, McHattie, and screenwriter Tony Burgess, who co-scripted this effort with Patrick Whistler.

In a director's note, McDonald acknowledges myriad influences, ranging from directors David Lynch and Luis Buñuel to writers William Burroughs and Raymond Chandler. Their distinctive styles are amply on display in this surreal, noirish tale in which logic and narrative coherence are not exactly in the forefront. The filmmaker admits, "It's probably a movie that should not have been made, because it does so much that is wrong. But that is also why I love it."

Whether viewers will also love the film (which seems perfectly suited to the drive-ins that constitute most of the theaters now operating) will very much depend on their tolerance for strangeness for its own sake. The fragmented storyline involves a hired killer, Johnny Deadeyes (McHattie), who is ordered by deranged criminal Hercules (Henry Rollins) to bring him the severed pinkie finger of a musician, known as "Maestro" (McHattie again), who has offended him.

Hercules, who owns an underground club called Al-Qaeda, has lately been specializing in sex trafficking of underage girls. Johnny resolves to rescue one of those captives, 14-year-old Olivia (Themis Pauwels), who has been promised as a bride to the brother of the Countess (Juliette Lewis, clearly enjoying herself while clad in a series of outlandish costumes). And just when it seems as if things couldn't get any stranger, it turns out that said brother is a vampire (Tómas Lemarquis, Blade Runner 2049, here made up to bear a strong resemblance to Max Schreck's Nosferatu).

Wildly episodic in structure and violent in the extreme, Dreamland doesn't fully succeed in sustaining its outlandish conceits. The pacing also drags significantly despite its brief running time, lapsing into a talkiness that provides too much opportunity to pick apart its absurdities.

Still, it's impossible to thoroughly dismiss a film so confident in its gonzo excesses. It certainly looks terrific, thanks to the exotic locations in Luxembourg and Belgium, the elegant lensing of Richard Van Oosterhout, the gorgeous production designs of Eugénie Collet and Florence Vercheval, and the stunning costumes by Magdalena Labuz, which could fuel a dozen Halloween parties.

Even while the supporting players chew the scenery as if they were starving, McHattie invests his dual characterizations with a minimalism that proves utterly compelling. He manages to differentiate his two characters even while subtly suggesting that they may be one and the same person, which, considering this film's bizarre sensibility, could certainly be the case. The grizzled actor displays the sort of quiet authority that can only be earned by extensive experience (he has some 250 screen and television credits), managing to make us fully invested in the existential plights of both his dissipated musician and his world-weary assassin. Watching him share the screen with himself, not to mention crooning a Eurythmics song, proves a decadent pleasure.

Production: Calach Films, Goodbye Productions, Velvet Films
Distributor: Uncork'd Entertainment, Dark Star Pictures (Available in theaters and on VOD)
Cast: Stephen McHattie, Henry Rollins, Juliette Lewis, Lisa Houle, Morgan Csarno-Peklar, Themis Pauwels, Astrid Roos, Hana Sofia Lopes
Director: Bruce McDonald
Screenwriters: Tony Burgess, Patrick Whistler
Producers: Jesus Gonzalez-Elvira, Amber Ripley, Sebastian Schelenz
Executive producers: Rob Merilees, Morris Ruskin, David Claikens, Alex Verbaere, Philippe Logie, Jim Sherry, Michael Robson
Director of photography: Richard Van Oosterhout
Production designers: Eugénie Collet, Florence Vercheval
Costume designer: Magdalena Labuz

Editor: Duff Smith
Composer: Jonathan Goldsmith
Casting: John Jackson, Tara Donnell, Sebastian Moradiellos

92 minutes