This review is part of our coverage of the 2022 Tribeca Film Festival.
“If you don’t remember your dream right away, then it’s no longer a dream – it’s a story.” This line is said by Simin, a Census taker who specializes in capturing dreams. Filmed in New Mexico (aka “the Land of Enchantment”), Land of Dreams is an entrancing journey of American dreams. The themes in the film might be fuzzy at times, but there are some strong performances that make Land of Dreams an entertaining watch.
Land of Dreams follows Census taker Simin (Sheila Vand). She travels around the United States, gathering information on behalf of the Census Bureau. In addition to asking the basic Census questions, she asks each person to recount the last dream they had. It’s an unusual question, but she reassures each person it’s for their security. As a Farsi-speaking Iranian-American, she’s selected by the bureau for a special mission to interview “The Colony,” a secretive fortress of Iranian fighters in the desert. As the movie progresses, the line between reality and dreams blurs, leading Simin to question her career and life choices.
Land of Dreams is an interesting mix of genres. It’s part sci-fi narrative, set in the not-too-distant future with flashy technology, such as clear laptops and projected computer screens. It’s also an existential workplace drama – Simin often replies “I’m just doing my job” when asked by interviewees why the Census wants to know their dreams. It also has elements of the road trip movie, with Matt Dillon joining Simin as her bodyguard Alan Villin (although he seems to be using her to spy on “The Colony”) and William Moseley as lovelorn poet Mark (he’s fallen for Simin – it’s love at first sight). They’re a ragtag bunch hitting the road, all under the careful watch of the dubious Census bureau.
Land of Dreams is a grounded drama, and it’s a fascinating choice by the directors Shirin Neshat (also a co-writer for the film) and Shoja Azari. The grounded realism of the film is a commentary on how when we dream, we don’t often realize it’s a dream until we wake up. The world of the film feels familiar yet strange as if something isn’t quite right, but you can’t put your finger on it. It leads the audience on the same journey as Simin, questioning what’s real and what’s fantasy.
The themes in the film might be fuzzy at times, but there are some strong performances that make Land of Dreams an entertaining watch.
Much of the credit for the grounding can be credited to Sheila Vand’s acting choices. As Simin, she often speaks in monotone, flat tones. She’s just a worker setting out to do a job. She rarely raises her voice or expresses concern, until the end of the film when her reality seems to be unraveling. It’s fun to see her evolve from a dedicated worker to an independent thinker, starting to question her place in the bureau and in the world. Vand makes some fun choices as Simin, and her performance is exciting to dissect.
Where Land of Dreams falls apart is connecting the many themes throughout the film. There’s a subplot about Simin’s hobby of re-enacting people’s dreams in costume and Farsi, and then uploading them on social media. When confronted by her boss Nancy (Anna Gunn), Simin states that the Census will never be able to control people’s dreams. If Simin doesn’t want the Census to control dreams, it seems like she’s claiming ownership instead. It’s unclear as to why Simin then takes control of dreams – is it a commentary on government overreach? Or a takedown of America’s conservative Christian beliefs? One could argue the push and pull of the film is operating like a dream. But that feels like a way to opt-out of saying what the film is really about.
The strongest points are the Census interviews. The interviewees allow for some of the actors to ham it up as outlandish characters, like Isabella Rossellini as a wealthy woman appearing via video call during her Census interview. There’s also some fun doubling of actors – Anna Gunn plays Simin’s boss and one of her first interviewees, and Christopher MacDonald plays two different interviewees: a VR golf-loving Southerner, and a new age-y pastor of a cultish Christian church. The doubling is jarring at first, but in the last act of the film, it’s clear that the doubling is supposed to force Simin (and the audience by extension), to question the reality in the film.
Despite some of its flaws, Land of Dreams is still an enjoyable watch. It’s a trippy journey through dreams in America, with a stellar performance by Sheila Vand, all under the direction of Shirin Neshat and Shoja Azari.