Bruce McDonald is a hard guy to pin down. Maybe not literally, since if you spend any significant amount of time in Toronto, you’re likely to come across him biking through the streets sporting his trademark straw hat. But over his 30+ year career, he’s been a local jack of all trades. Like Michael Winterbottom in the UK, McDonald has flitted between film and television projects, tackling all different kinds of genres and moods and leaving a lengthy list of credits in his wake. And it might not always have a discernible style, his body of work is marked by a commitment to the DIY punk spirit that still motivates him to experiment with new ideas about filmmaking and storytelling in general.
As with any kind of experimentation, however, things don’t always click – which brings us to McDonald’s latest feature, the wacky sci-fi/fantasy neo-noir Dreamland. It’s a reunion between the director, writer Tony Burgess and star Stephen McHattie after Pontypool, the 2008 cult horror flick that stands as one of McDonald’s very best films. But where that film struck a perfect balance between esoteric gabfest and legitimately scary zombie apocalypse shriek show, this new animal is a tonal mishmash of the highest order.
McHattie does double duty this time around, playing both a mysterious trumpet player simply known as “the Maestro” and a long-haired assassin named Johnny. Disgusted upon learning that his unhinged crime boss Hercules (an enthusiastic Henry Rollins) has turned his business toward child sex trafficking, Johnny reluctantly accepts his latest assignment – to cut off the Maestro’s pinky finger and bring it to him. Conceiving of a plan to instead acquire a pinky finger somewhere else and pass it off as the Maestro’s, things become even more complicated when a friend’s young daughter is kidnapped by Hercules’s sex traffickers and sold into marriage with a literal vampire (played by imposing Icelandic actor Tómas Lemarquis). And in case you’re not already having trouble wrapping your head around this, I think Johnny and the Maestro are also supposed to be the same person or something?
I’m sure that the cracked world of Dreamland seemed like a radical idea in Tony Burgess’s head but translated to the screen, it comes off embarrassingly cheap and flat. Set in a vaguely futuristic, vaguely old time-y fantasy world (Philip K. Dick must have been an inspiration), it’s the kind of milieu that may have seemed hip and cool twenty years ago. Now it’s just lame and amateurish, especially after recent fantasy noir offerings like 2018’s dreadful London Fields have done everything possible to put the final nail in this sub genre’s coffin.
Maybe this would all work a little better if there was a story worth following. But for all of the hyperreal violence, deviant behavior and bizarre shenanigans on display, Dreamland is a pretty boring affair. The film kicks off so fast that there’s no time to ground it to any relatable feeling. It’s doubly disappointing considering how economically tight yet richly imaginative the script for Pontypool was, allowing us to savour the language while feeling immersed in the horrors on screen. I can’t necessarily fault Burgess for his ambition here, but he’s so eager to throw each new crazy plot point at us that the overall effect is one of grasping at straws for our attention. Even his dialogue falters here, cluttered with stale exchanges and jokes that land with a thud.
Dreamland even does a disservice to the great Stephen McHattie, who held the screen so magnetically in Pontypool while mostly just talking into a microphone. Saddled with two characters who don’t even have enough combined development to make up one single character, McHattie more often than not looks lost, struggling to try and keep pace with the film’s frenetic pace even though he has little to go on. On the other hand, Juliette Lewis feels a little more at home as a character named the Countess, the vampire groom’s sister who spends most of her screen time barking orders at harried wedding planners and assistants as they set up for the ceremony. It’s a nothing performance but at least it’s better than when she inexplicably played a doe-eyed Quebecois woman with a terrible accent in 2001’s Picture Claire, another neo-noir dud that she collaborated on with McDonald.
McDonald and Burgess may want their film feel like an actual dream to the viewer but in this case, it’s one that’ll be forgotten as soon you wake up.
- Rated: NR
- Genre: Action, Comedy, SUSPENSE
- Release Date: 5/29/2020
- Directed by: Bruce McDonald
- Starring: Henry Rollins, Juliette Lewis, Lisa Houle, Stephen McHattie, Tomas Lemarquis
- Produced by: Amber Ripley, Jesus Gonzalez-Elvira, Sebastian Schelenz
- Written by: Patrick Whistler, Tony Burgess
- Studio: D Films