“Dreamland” is an incoherent, messy audience endurance test

Dreamland Stephen McHattie in Dreamland (Dark Star Pictures)

Bruce McDonald’s crime drama/thriller/horror movie is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside a NyQuil-induced hallucination.

The first thing you need to know about Dreamland is that it should not be confused with another movie called Dreamland scheduled for release later this year, starring Armie Hammer and Gary Oldman. Neither of those movies should be confused with a third movie called Dreamland released last year, starring Margot Robbie. Three movies with the same title released within the same time period might be a little confusing, but have no fear: Bruce McDonald’s Dreamland is so very much its own thing that it could never be mistaken for another film. While it has ambition to spare, plus the always welcome presence of Stephen McHattie, both are wasted on an incomprehensible plot, grotesque characters, and “shock the normies” moments that are ultimately more numbing than unsettling.

McHattie, gaunt and severe as a Plymouth Colony preacher, is Johnny, a hitman in an unnamed place, working for an unidentified employer (that the audience is dropped in the middle of the plot without a map is the least of Dreamland’s problems). Like all professional hitmen in movies, Johnny is wracked with remorse for his crimes, but not enough to stop killing and/or torturing. His latest assignment is courtesy of Hercules (Henry Rollins), who orders him to cut the finger off a Chet Baker-like trumpet player called the Maestro (also McHattie) for some unclear infraction.

While it has ambition to spare, plus the always welcome presence of Stephen McHattie, both are wasted on an incomprehensible plot, grotesque characters, and “shock the normies” moments that are ultimately more numbing than unsettling.

Johnny is horrified to discover that his employer has moved into the pedophilia business. When he discovers that a young neighbor has been kidnapped for a wedding ceremony hosted by the evil, flamboyant Countess (Juliette Lewis), Johnny goes on a bloody rampage to rescue her. That’s about as coherent an explanation for the plot that can be offered, without going into the inexplicable time shifts, the dream-like musical sequences, and the suggestion that Johnny and the Maestro are actually two sides of the same person. Dreamland lifts heavily from You Were Never Really Here and Twin Peaks, with an ending that feels like it was inspired after one too many deep dives into QAnon threads on Twitter.

There’s also a vampire.

The fact that the vampire is a secondary, almost superfluous character is one of the major issues with Dreamland. It’s a series of ideas that, rather than be allowed to percolate, are mushed together in an unpleasant, tasteless sandwich. Supporting characters are given bad accents instead of personalities, and often have little to do except stand around and wait to be shot to death. The world McDonald has created, along with screenwriters Tony Burgess and Patrick Whistler, is bleak and ugly, where even children are dead-eyed and world-weary, smoking cigarettes and demanding to buy guns, when they aren’t acting as Rollins’ henchmen, taking hostages while dressed like they’re in a gritty, ultraviolent version of Bugsy Malone. All of this is in the service of tiresome “perhaps it’s all just the long dream of a dying man” nonsense we’ve seen plenty of times before, without vampires or anyone snipping off a homeless man’s little finger with a cigar cutter.

McHattie, however, god bless him, he tries. He and McDonald worked together previously in the excellent (and sorely underseen) Pontypool, a movie that was also economical with character development, but never lost sight of what kind of movie it was trying to be. McHattie brings the same sort of intense, almost scary energy in the earlier movie here, despite occasionally looking as confused as the audience is. Where his performance is a low-key 4 or so on the acting volume dial, however, his co-stars have their dials cranked up so high they’re in danger of rupturing an artery. Particularly egregious is Juliette Lewis, serving up an Easter dinner sized serving of glazed ham, who seems to think she’s in a dark comedy satirizing political diplomacy. While the performance is Lewis’ responsibility, that she’s stuck in a gross, clumsy subplot in which she throws a party where rich government officials rub elbows with Nazis and vampires is entirely the fault of McDonald and his screenwriters.

Now, some may call it daring to put a little comedy in your grimy crime thriller/drama/horror movie in which underage girls are sold for either sex or to be eaten or both. Others may call it a cheap and lazy shock tactic to pad out a half-written plot. “Political satire” or not, pedophilia remains a subject that requires a sensitive, thoughtful approach. Dreamland comes at it with a sledgehammer, leaving an ugly, pointless mess. 

Dreamland is now available on VOD.

Dreamland Trailer:

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