Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

"Lavishly staged and shot with dazzling confidence, Dreamland segues easily between these glamorous spaces and the scummy streets and decaying hotel rooms of contemporary noir." | Photo: Courtesy of Fantasia International Film Festival

Most filmgoers familiar with director Bruce McDonald will know him from his 2008 film Pontypool, one of the smartest and most unconventional genre works of this century. It was a film concerned with the connection between language and ideas and what happens when things break down. Dreamland reunites him with Pontypool writer and star Tony Burgess and Stephen McHattie in a film that takes a similar approach to the visual language of cinema, telling a story which is superficially incoherent, rendered in the language of dreams, but which can be understood instinctively because we all know that language so well.

McHattie plays two roles: a heroin-addled jazz trumpeter loosely based on Chet Baker and a small town hitman hired to cut off said trumpeter's finger by local crime lord Hercules (a cartoonishly sleazy Henry Rollins), who wants payment on a debt. The hitman and the crime lord go back a long way but the former is starting to have those doubts that come with age and certain sort of moral fatigue, not least because Hercules has recently become involved in child trafficking, something that's a world away from the sort of crime he's comfortable with. When he's approached by a child who is frantic because his 14-year-old sister is about to be forcibly married to the vampire brother of the local countess, it's the final straw. Something has to change - and you can bet that there'll be blood along the way.

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This is a film full of beautifully composed set pieces and colourful characters who hold nothing back. Early on, the hit man is asked by a woman to kill her husband - who is in the room at the time - and his subsequent friendship with the couple, who continue to snipe at each other throughout (with every indication of love beneath the surface), provides both comedy and heart. Juliette Lewis hams it up joyously as the countess, in a series of fantastic costumes, and Icelandic actor Tómas Lemarquis gives it the full Max Schreck as her brother, a character whose supernatural aspect is neither explained nor apologised for. With its various gangsters and international dignitaries - whom the countess frets over keeping separate at dinner - this is simply the kind of milieu where vampires turn up.

Lavishly staged and shot with dazzling confidence, Dreamland segues easily between these glamorous spaces and the scummy streets and decaying hotel rooms of contemporary noir. Even in the latter, Richard Van Oosterhout's lucid cinematography creates a sense of magic. Other aspects of the world that McDonald has created blur the boundaries of the real and the imaginary, like the gangs of smartly dressed street kids who may look like extras from Bugsy Malone but have swapped their custard pies for real guns.

Eugénie Collet production design is exquisite and the blurring of periods referenced in both costumes and sets captures the timeless quality of life in Europe's great cities, emphasising the ancient hegemonies that keep everyone in their place. The hitman is haunted by dreams of children whose faces are streaked with blood, inhabiting a forest that might once have stood upon this spot. Though the film takes its time (and will doubtless be too slow for some), there's a sense of primal things shifting beneath its surface. Its eccentricity is, after all, just a coded way of talking about much darker things, and bright red splashed of blood or wine remind us of how all such dances eventually end.

Reviewed on: 11 Apr 2020
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On the night of the strangest wedding in cinema history, a grotesque gang boss hires a stone cold killer to bring him the finger of a fading, drug-addicted jazz legend.
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Director: Bruce McDonald

Writer: Tony Burgess, Patrick Whistler

Starring: Juliette Lewis, Henry Rollins, Stephen McHattie, Tómas Lemarquis, Lisa Houle

Year: 2019

Runtime: 92 minutes

BBFC: 15 - Age Restricted

Country: US, Canada, Luxembourg, Belgium


Fantasia 2019

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