Dreamland is a melodrama that leans into the tragedy and schmaltz with a lot of grim desperation and sturdy performances

Dreamland is a melodrama that leans into the tragedy and schmaltz with a lot of grim desperation and sturdy performances without any real surprises, just a dark sense of inevitability as it heads towards the finale. Also a significant chunk of the movie is hiding out looking dirty in barns. There are some nifty, menacing visuals of dust storms and depression-era folks looking messy and starved. Even though it’s supposedly a bank robbery thriller there isn’t much bank robbery in it. Also there are a few tricks to give the film cinematic depth which sometimes works well and sometimes feels hokey. However, there are skilled thespians giving solid performances. Dreamland is kind of a crummy title (especially considering there’s another movie called Dreamland released at the same time which is very confusing) but Love in the Time of Depression Era Dust Storms was probably too long.

In the Great Depression of the 1930s, times are tough and dust storms are constantly raging, making life difficult for teenager Eugene (Finn Cole) who was abandoned by his father at a young age. He is stuck with his overbearing stepfather, George (Travis Fimmel), his meek mother Olivia (Kerry Condon) and his step-sister Phoebe (Darby Camp). One night in the family’s abandoned barn, he finds the beat up accused bank robber, Allison (Margot Robbie), who has a 10,000 dollar bounty on her after a botched robbery as several innocent people ended up dead. Allison tells Eugene if she helps him escape, she’ll give him 20,000 dollars and he can flee his stagnant life. But escape seems unlikely and as he tries to hide Allison’s from his family, things unravel fast.
This story owes quite a lot to the Bonnie and Clyde mythos and it’s hard to watch the film without being reminded of that iconic paring. Although, the bank robbery in here isn’t presented as glamourous, showing the robberies as a messy, bloody careening event of barely restrained chaos. There isn’t a lot of bank robberies which is a shame because the one bank robbery scene has a great pace with the whole robbery unfolding in an extremely tense single shot. Allison isn’t a glamourous mob moll, despite being played by the gorgeous Robbie. She complains about being dirty and stuck in the barn and is haunted by the memories of the botched robbery. The ultimate truth as to what happened is not exactly dramatically surprising, but it makes dramatic sense. With any other actress, the barn scenes would be interminable but Robbie is good enough to make any line interesting.
The movie stumbles a bit by making Eugene the main character because despite various speeches, he really just comes across as dim, doubling down on dumb decisions throughout. His actions in the movie’s closing minutes are supposed to be sympathetic but it feels like a petulant temper tantrum. There is a whole lot of whining about his father and his mother telling secrets about his father’s disappearance that just come across as filler. Cole’s performance is a lot of mush mouthed sulking with a few lively spots.
Fimmel as his stepdad is mostly a bad stepdad cliché, but Fimmel, who played a crazy spaceman zealot in the excellent Raised by Wolves, is very good at doing deranged. His moments in the end show some depth that isn’t earned by the script but Fimmel sells it. As the mother, Condon spends a lot of time looking sad but she does get in big scene where she explains what she knows about Eugene’s father that is strongly performed, if somewhat superfluous. Eugene’s sister Phoebe comes across as a bit smarter than she lets on and she has a few funny throwaway lines as she doesn’t believe Eugene’s lies about what is in the barn. She is trotted out for the finale as a way to generate some dramatic pathos.
There are a few cinematic flourishes throughout by interjecting some random scenery flashes shot in a different aspect ratio that may or may not represent what is going through Eugene’s mind. It’s meant to be intensely introspective but it’s also just a bit showy and confusing. The musical score is really heavy handed, laying on the sad plinking pianos rather thick. The movie has an omniscient narrator voiced by Lola Kirke who is supposed to be Phoebe grown up reflecting on the fateful events but it comes across as hacky and didactic. Still, some visual parts work well, like the pair looking at an oncoming dust storm, or a moment when Eugene gets pulled over by a cop and Allison hides underneath the car that draws some genuine tension. Despite the aforementioned problem of Eugene being a complete idiot, the last 10 minutes of the film are gripping as everything clicks. Even if it takes about 80 sometimes dragging minutes to get to the good stuff the payoff is grand.
Dreamland has a few bits where things come alive and a lot of it is carried by the magnetic screen presence of Robbie who raises any scene she’s in. It kind of fumbles making the audience care about its protagonist and some of its arty cinematic indulgences fall flat, but when things get rolling it can be an intense experience.
3 stars
Director: Miles Joris-Peyrafitte
Starring: Finn Cole, Margot Robbie and Travis Fimmel

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