Producers: Jesus Gonzalez-Elvira, Amber Ripley and Sebastian Schelenz Director: Bruce McDonald Screenplay: Tony Burgess and Patrick Whistler Cast: Stephen McHattie, Henry Rollins, Juliette Lewis, Lisa Houle, Tómas Lemarquis, Morgan Csarno-Peklar, Thémis Pauwels, Astrid Roos and Hana Sofia Lopes Distributor: Uncork’d Entertainment/Dark Sky Films
If you’re looking for something bizarre, Bruce McDonald’s “Dreamland” is for you. On the other hand, if you’re hoping for a logical narrative…well, search elsewhere. The film is definitely weird, but perversely fascinating—for a while, at least. But the title forewarns you that anything goes, and it pretty much does, and over time the barrage—not so much a dream as a fever-dream in film noir mode—grows tiresome.
Much of what the film has to offer derives from the performances—two of them—by veteran Stephen McHattie. On the one hand, he plays a legendary, drug-addicted trumpet player known as The Maestro. On the other, he’s a cold-blooded hit man named Johnny Deadeyes.
Johnny has been hired by Hercules (Henry Rollins), a criminal kingpin who lords over his empire from a glitzy Luxembourg nightclub called Al Quaeda, to deal with The Maestro, against whom he holds a grudge for forgetting his name. The hit-man’s mission is to cut off the pinkie finger of the musician and bring it to him.
Meanwhile Hercules has been engaged by The Countess (Juliette Lewis) to provide an underage wife for her brother (Tómas Lemarquis), who happens to be a vampire. The girl selected is Olivia (Thémis Pauwels), who sits, along with other youngsters who are pawns in Hercules’ sex trade, benumbed in the gangster’s lair. She’s waiting to be picked up and taken to the elaborate ceremony and reception The Countess is fastidiously overseeing to delight her brother.
But Johnny turns o his boss. Not only does he deliver someone else’s finger to Hercules—a trick the crook immediately discovers, since the nail is not painted jet black—but, prodded by Olivia’s brother Dario (Morgan Csarno-Peklar), determines to save the girl from a fate worse than death—or undeath, as the case may be. He extracts her from Hercules’ clutches and entrusts their care to Lisa (Lisa Houte). Their safety is short-lived, however, as a gang of child hoodlums, all dressed in black suits, arrive to take them all to The Countess’ bash—and in the process apparently kill Johnny.
But you can’t keep a hood hit-man down, because Johnny revives and makes his way to the wedding reception himself. The Maestro is also there, hired to play with the band—and do is Hercules, furious at his presence. The upshot is a gun-battle royale, in which everybody pulls out guns and has at it.
If one cares to expend the energy to look beyond the garish, cartoon-like surface of “Dreamland”—a colorful canvas provided by production designers Eugenie Collet and Florence Vercheval and costumer Magdalena Labuz (whose increasingly flamboyant gowns Lewis obviously enjoys wearing), and shot in lustrous tones by cinematographer Richard Van Oosterhout—it’s possible to detect several themes jostling around for attention.
One is a commonplace in independent film nowadays—the notion that the elites are feeding on those they consider inferior. Here that’s expressed most clearly through the countess’ vampire brother, who’s made up to look like Nosferatu drooling lasciviously at the thought of sucking Olivia’s virgin blood.
Then there’s the focus on doubling, most obviously in the twin characters of Johnny and The Maestro, both precise, if perverse, artists in their different ways, but also in Olivia and Marco, siblings who resemble and cling to one another. As the movie progresses, all seem to be in the process of merging to some obscure extent.
And, of course, transformation is at the heart of the picture—the hit-man becomes an approximation of a hero, rejecting the order to mutilate his double and taking up arms to destroy an operation based on the ugly practices of child sex trafficking and pedophilia. As Johnny remarks portentously to Dario, “We start out as a bunch of people, but we end up as one”—pointing out that all human beings have a raft of possibilities from which they can choose, but each of them ultimately must make a basic existential decision about what kind of person to be.
It’s difficult, however, to take any deeper meaning seriously while McDonald and co-writers Tony Burgess and Patrick Whistler pile visual assault upon visual assault and editor Duff Smith italicizes the emptiness of it all with his lethargic pacing. He, McDonald and their collaborators—including the actors, whose approaches range from ultra-somnolence (McHattie, Pauwels) to scenery-chewing hysteria (Lewis, Rollins)—start off strongly, but lose steam as the picture drones on. What starts out as a potential guilty pleasure devolves into a self-indulgent misfire.
Bruce McDonald’s features have developed a small but vigorous cult following. On the evidence of “Dreamland,” it’s a cult you won’t be anxious to join.