Miles Joris-Peyrafitte’s Dreamland is a peculiar little film, a somewhat forgettable coming-of-age gangster tale with an idealistic heart and a cliched narrative, but one with copious amounts of style. Written by relative newcomer Nicolaas Zwart, it is unfocused and unrefined, yet attention grabbing, thanks mostly to a mesmerising performance by Margot Robbie.
Set during the The Great Depression in the vast plains of Texas, Dreamland tells the story of Eugene Evans (Finn Cole), whose father abandoned him and his mother when he was just a boy. Since then, his mother has remarried the cruel and brutish George (Travis Fimmel). When known bank robber and killer Allison Wells (Robbie) is rumoured to be hiding nearby, Eugene plans to find the woman to bank the reward. To his surprise, he finds a wounded Allison in his family’s barn, and rather than turn her in, he nurses her to health and plots to get her to Mexico.
The story is told in part through heavy voiceover provided by an older version of Eugene’s sister Phoebe, voiced by Lola Kirke. It’s all a little clumsy and heavy-handed and although Zwart’s script sets up several interesting themes to explore, it never gets to them. Issues of abandonment, masculinity and having agency over our own stories and legacy are hinted at, but never truly dug into.
Mostly, Dreamland suffers from a lack of perspective and focus. The film begins as Eugene’s story, his search for himself and his destiny, but as soon as Robbie enters the picture, her narrative is more heavily incorporated. Allison is accused of killing a small child among others after a bank robbery gone awry, although swears she didn’t shoot her, the sight of the young girl’s motionless body still haunts her.
Eugene is fascinated by comic books and the crooks they portray. He idolises their reckless, dangerous and intoxicating lifestyle and Allison presents him a unique opportunity to be like one of his fictional heroes. He can get the girl and drive off into the sunset, trading in his dusty old life for something much more exciting, and in Eugene’s mind, something far more valid.
Performance-wise, Dreamland is surprisingly solid. Robbie, as always, is great and she sells Allison’s fragility well while also portraying her manipulative nature, refusing to make her a victim or straightforward villain. “I’m the man in the hat,” Allison tells Eugene, referring to the cool cats seen in his comic books. And that she is, playing both the hero and the villain after crashing into Eugene’s life.
Finn Cole, brother of Joe, fairs well against Robbie. His big eyes look innocent enough to convince us of Eugene’s innocence and naivety, even if his character is otherwise bland and has very little personality outside of the necessary traits. Fimmel overplays Eugene’s stepfather George and while he’s certainly off-putting and cruel, George also comes across as a caricature, which lessens his impact.
Joris-Peyrafitte’s strangest choice here is the inclusion of Garret Hedlund as Allison’s bank robbing and romantic partner, Perry Montroy. Only present in flashbacks, Perry is yet another memory that haunts Allison, but one that doesn’t feel as substantial as the image of the fallen child. Hedlund has barely any lines and his character feels like he is part of another cut of the film. It’s almost a distraction to have such a well-known actor play a part so small.
Visually, Dreamland is a treat. Cinematographer Lyle Vincent captures the vast emptiness of the Texas plains and his gorgeous shot compositions are filled with inspiration. There is something inherently romantic about how Eugene’s dusty, dying home town is shot and framed or how Allison’s memories are viewed, almost through a hue of nostalgia and regret. Patrick Higgins’ music is at times too manipulative and intrusive, but ultimately settles into the film nicely and towards the end, when Joris-Peyrafitte gets a firmer grip on the narrative and Eugene and Allison’s love story, the score really soars and elevates the final act.
Despite a weak script, Dreamland has plenty to offer, and while the narrative is too scattered to leave a lasting impression, it’s still an achingly beautiful depiction of the American west. Its frames have texture to them, as if they are from a different era, a believable lived-in memory rather than a constructed, commercial product.
Dreamland is cinemas November 13 and available on PVOD November 17 in the US.