Dreamland director Bruce McDonald has an affinity for weirdos. In fact, Weirdos is the title of McDonald’s 2016 movie, which was arguably his return to form. The Bruce’s storied career in Canadian film is at its best when it tells eccentric tales of oddballs and outsiders. From Highway 61 to Hard Core Logo and Trigger, McDonald shares an affinity with ruffians who find strength outside the crowd.
At the other pole of McDonald’s film work is his weird stuff in horror. His track record on this game is much spottier. For every masterful Pontypool, there’s a misfire like Hellions or a head-scratcher of a ghost film (ish) like Hard Core Logo 2. But Pontypool might be one of McDonald’s career peaks, and a high for Canadian horror in general. The film’s at its strongest when radio host Stephen McHattie commands the airwaves as his small town endures a zombie outbreak. The only complaint one can make about Pontypool is that it loses its edge when the splat-n-chuckle mayhem graces the screen.
Upping the Crazy
McDonald’s latest film Dreamland reunites him with McHattie and their Pontypool scribe Tony Burgess. (With newcomer Patrick Whistler on co-writing duties.) One wishes that Dreamland were cause for celebration, but Pontypool it is not. It’s disappointing to see McDonald miss the mark with this one because Dreamland combines all the elements that should make for a great McDonald Movie: music, mayhem, eccentrics, and copious amounts of drugs. However, where Pontypool and McDonald’s best films are sparse in their storytelling, Dreamland is an all-you-can-eat buffet from weirdsville. There’s just a bit too much crazy for it to work.
Dreamland flies off the rails from the outset, but it gives McHattie an amazing dual role. It’s refreshing to see one of Canada’s finest character actors make the most of a beefy part. McHattie stars as Johnny, a grizzled hitman who looks like Gary Oldman’s Dracula crossbred with TIFF Canadian programmer Steve Gravestock. His mobster boss (Henry Rollins) assigns him to kill a washed up jazz trumpeter and the mission sends him on a string of episodes that could fuel a season of Twin Peaks directed by Matthew Rankin. McHattie also plays the jazz “hit man” and Chet Baker-like musician, adopting distinct personas for each weirdo while imbuing them with underlying similarities.
Weird for Weird’s Sake
There’s some promise to the ludicrously violent doppelgänger schadenfreude between the McHatties. However, the all-over-the-map screenplay veers in too many directions. Dreamland evokes the hazy fever of a midnight madness flick. It flows in and out of scenes like a woozy couch potato channel-surfing at 2 AM.
One ellipsis follows another. The truncated scenes ultimately amount to little. The fragmentary nature of the film doesn’t do its convoluted plot any favours as Johnny finds himself in an errant You Were Never Really Here-style bloodbath involving child sex trafficking in Luxembourg. The film cuts off some promising angles instead of running with them. When Johnny needs to save a young girl whom a moll (Juliette Lewis in a performance that’s bizarre, even for her) wants as a bride for her vampire brother, the film could at least fudge a reason why it throws in a vampire. Dreamland often feels weird simply for the sake of being weird. One can only imagine which drugs had higher potency: the ones that fuelled the screenplay or the ones McDonald downed before reading it.
I’ll give McDonald this one point, though: his movies are never boring even when they don’t make any fucking sense.
Dreamland is now available on VOD.
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