Toni Collette tries to elevate a by-the-books horse racing drama that’s long on horse racing and short on actual drama.
Toni Collette has recently made a name for herself in the broader movie-going culture as a queen of creepy, suspense cinema, with her fantastic performances in Ari Aster’s Hereditary and Charlie Kaufman’s dark and whimsical I’m Thinking of Ending Things. It’s fun to see this resurgence of popularity nearly two decades after she gave what I consider her best performance of her career in M. Night Shyamalan’s The Sixth Sense.
Outside of horror, however, Collette has taken mostly forgettable roles in movies far below her talent level. To repurpose a joke from BoJack Horseman, it seems like Collette takes all the drama roles that Frances McDormand, who has similar sensibilities and gestures, says “no” to.
In the beginning of Dream Horse, Collette wakes up in bed next to a large, homely man, immediately recalling scenes between McDormand and John Carroll Lynch in Fargo. Collette plays Jan Vokes, a Welsh bartender who also tends to a small collection of farm animals in her small Welsh town home. She and her husband Brian (Owen Teale) are struggling to pay bills and make ends meet.
But Jan gets interested in racing horses and decides to breed one herself, considering she’s done well with other animals – a dog, a goose, some rabbits, etc. What she gets herself into is a collective of townsfolk who all chip in a little bit of money to fund and raise this horse, who they believe can compete to win in competitions (and let them earn some money back).
Dream Horse is your typical underdog story, with all the same essential makings of previous classics like Cool Runnings, wherein a ragtag bunch infiltrates a competition and community that’s not built for them. At one of the races, a well-dressed tender scoffs at their disheveled appearance. Several rich men who breed horses for a living joke and giggle at Jan’s collective as if they wandered in from out of the woods. Many of the races are close and the collective’s horse (named Dream Alliance) does pretty well in nearly all of them.
The sense of urgency or stakes in the film are rather low, similar to a children’s movie where peril and tension generally rise and fall with relative ease. No moments of pain linger much longer than a minute tops ,and are rectified closely after they occur.
The sense of urgency or stakes in the film are rather low, similar to a children’s movie where peril and tension generally rise and fall with relative ease.
As for Collette, she gives a decidedly ‘aww shucks’ performance, where she smirks and gives cute mischievous looks to get her way. Her character is half a strong-willed woman and half an in-over-her-head outsider, which Collette does her level best to balance. Damian Lewis, on the other hand, goes through the motions as an overwhelmed accountant; his character’s dark past with racing horses, which nearly rendered him and his wife homeless, provides the greatest narrative weight of the film. But this gives way easily because it seems like Dream Horse is the 1992-era Michael Jordan of horse racing in Wales, and is almost never in doubt of winning.
The races themselves are quick and forgettable, mostly pictured in sweeping aerial camera shots and a few point-of-view shots from within the race. On top of that, there’s a weird dynamic between the collective and Dream Alliance that lacks enough emotional depth to build up appropriate stakes for the horse’s health and well-being (beyond whether he’ll be ready to race or available to sell).
Characters constantly remark how the horse changed their lives, but the movie never really shows us the fruits of that claim. Jan spells out in a straining monologue how the horse brought everyone together and helped them realize themselves. I was reminded of much better and equally sappy racing movies (like The Art of Racing in the Rain starring soap-opera king Milo Ventimiglia), which were able to establish and even advance connections between its human and animal characters.
Director Euros Lyn, who mostly worked on major British TV shows like Doctor Who and Sherlock prior to this, gives Dream Horse a nostalgic golden sheen and warm atmosphere. The dialogue and light bursts of comedy between characters feel a bit passé but also refreshing in a cinema landscape that is overrun with disaffected irony and quick-jab sarcasm. The film is suffused with that small-town kindness and optimism, where everyone is easily willing to do the right thing.
I can’t bemoan this kind of poptivist escapism, but it does render Dream Horse pretty inert as a drama. There are no gestures or turns to subvert the characters’ clear trajectory for success and happiness, which leaves the whole thing feeling cloying and predictable. The small-town underdog story is an audience favorite that has worked for centuries, but Dream Horse’s total aversion to risk or drama leaves it in the dust among its many similar-themed companions.
Dream Horse is currently streaming on Netflix.