Character actor Stephen McHattie and cult director Bruce McDonald (Hard Core Logo, Hellions) are both icons of Canadian filmmaking. However, they rarely get the chance to showcase their talents on a wider scale. McDonald’s latest film, the bizarre, impressionistic thriller Dreamland, isn’t likely to reach a mainstream audience, but it does at least provide a rare leading role for McHattie.
Actually, Dreamland provides McHattie with two leading roles, both mysterious characters who seem to have no relation to each other despite looking exactly alike. Shot mainly in Luxembourg and set in a surrealistic alternate universe (small print in the end credits claims the movie was “shot on location in Dreamland”), the movie sets McHattie’s characters on a collision course with each other thanks to various shady underworld figures. The Countess (Juliette Lewis) has hired an unnamed trumpeter everyone simply calls Maestro (McHattie) to perform at her brother’s wedding. Meanwhile, nightclub owner and human trafficker Hercules (Henry Rollins) has hired hitman Johnny (also McHattie) to remove the Maestro’s finger in retaliation for a petty slight.
That’s a fairly straightforward way to describe the largely elliptical plot, which eventually focuses on Johnny’s efforts to save his underage neighbor from being forced into marriage with the Countess’ brother (Tómas Lemarquis), who is a vampire. Yes, an actual bloodsucking vampire, which everyone simply takes for granted despite the absence of any other supernatural elements in the story.
The Countess (the countess of what, exactly, is never explained) and the vampire (who, like the Maestro, never gets an actual name) don’t even show up until nearly halfway through the movie, after the Maestro has spent time wandering around the city looking to score drugs and to liberate his beloved trumpet from a local pawn shop. He and Johnny have their first showdown at a café, where they speak mostly in cryptic references, although Johnny agrees to forgo mutilating the Maestro, at least for a little while.
McDonald previously worked with screenwriter Tony Burgess (who co-wrote Dreamland with Patrick Whistler) on the 2008 cult classic horror movie Pontypool, which also starred McHattie and also took some strange turns, although its odd detours came with more satisfying payoffs. Dreamland coasts almost entirely on atmosphere, which carries it for a little while when it seems like it’s mainly riffing on film noir (complete with a smoky, jazzy musical score). Once the Countess and the vampire enter the picture, though, the atmosphere becomes as muddled as the story, and the second half of the movie is tonally and narratively incoherent.
McHattie still holds a lot of it together with his grave intensity, although there isn’t much aside from an awkward wig on Johnny to set his two characters apart. The actor gives both characters a world-weary sense of resignation, and Johnny’s decision to go against his bosses to save his young neighbor from the clutches of the vampire recalls any number of gunslingers or detectives who are roused from their cynicism to protect the innocent. The people in Dreamland are more archetypes than characters, in keeping with the movie’s exaggerated stylistic approach.
Rather than create an immersive world, though, McDonald just throws a lot of random, inexplicable elements together. Why is Hercules’ nightclub called Al Qaeda? Why does he employ a gang of children dressed in suits and ties? Why do the Maestro and Johnny keep having seemingly prophetic visions? And why is there a vampire in the middle of all of this? Dreamland doesn’t have to make complete linear sense, but by the time it gets to the climax at the vampire’s wedding, it’s completely incomprehensible, almost a parody of Lynchian abstract storytelling. McDonald is talented, but he’s no David Lynch, and Dreamland is pretty far from Twin Peaks.
At least the actors are having fun, and aside from McHattie, Lewis and Rollins both luxuriate in their villainous roles. Lemarquis plays the rat-faced vampire more like Max Schreck’s iconic Count Orlok from Nosferatu than the debonair, suave vampires more commonly seen onscreen, and he’s never sexy or seductive. Marrying him is clearly a horrible fate, for anyone of any age. McHattie makes the most of his rare top billing and extensive screen time, and even if the movie doesn’t hold together, it puts forth a strong case for casting McHattie in roles that capitalize on his talents.
The costumes and sets are stylishly designed, and the relatively rare movie location of Luxembourg contributes to the dreamlike feel, since it’s not a setting frequently shown onscreen. But rather than immerse the audience in this peculiar world, the movie languidly drifts from one ill-defined plot point to another before climaxing in a meaninglessly violent shoot-out and ending on one more inscrutable, pseudo-philosophical musing. McDonald may have set out to create a visionary head trip, but what he’s produced is more of a tedious headache.
Starring Stephen McHattie, Henry Rollins, Juliette Lewis, Lisa Houle and Tómas Lemarquis, Dreamland premieres Friday on VOD.
Dreamland coasts almost entirely on atmosphere, which carries it for a little while, but the second half is tonally and narratively incoherent.