Even with a solid performance by Margot Robbie, this Dust Bowl drama leaves its ideas about mythmaking blowing in the wind.
- 💃🏻 Robbie almost invests her character - already a cipher - with the depth and complexity that she deserves.
- 💃🏻 Director Miles Joris-Peyrafitte creates a convincing sense of time and place through period detail.
- 💃🏻 The pacing of events suggests that a lot more happens in the film than should for just a few days' time.
- 💃🏻 The movie's reliance upon familiar tropes without adding anything new or deconstructing them bogs down the emotional heft of its story.
Ostensibly the story of an impressionable young man who falls for a beautiful, dangerous fugitive, Dreamland attempts to re-frame a familiar portrait of youth’s enduring restlessness with an overdue deconstruction outlaws romanticized in media and myth. But even a complex performance by Robbie can’t hold together all of the shaggy components of Miles Joris-Petrafitte’s Depression-era drama as it wildly overplays the emotional depth of the time in which its sequence of events are supposed to take place, feeling overlong and underwhelming as a result.
Finn Cole (Animal Kingdom) plays Eugene Evans, a young man abandoned as a child by his birth father and then raised by an unsentimental stepfather, George (Travis Fimmel, Finding Steve McQueen). Living on the edge of poverty at the height of the Depression, Eugene retreats into the fantasies of detective stories and pulp novels when he’s not caring for his little sister Phoebe (Darby Camp, Benji). But when news spreads that a wanted robber, the supposedly cold-blooded child killer Allison Wells (Robbie) is on the loose in his community, Eugene becomes fixated on her exploits even as he joins the search party to apprehend her. He encounters more than he bargains for when Wells turns up in the family barn, bleeding, scared and requiring medical attention.
Both terrified and tantalized by her legendary exploits, Eugene stitches up her wound and reluctantly befriends her, even as his stepfather becomes more determined than ever to capture her and hopefully acquire a portion of the $10,000 reward. But when Allison offers Eugene twice that amount in exchange for safe passage out of town, he’s too intrigued — and eager to fall for her charms — to refuse. Before long, Eugene and Allison are on the run with George and a small crew of bounty hunters at his side, with only her ghosts and his fears standing between them and their freedom in Mexico.
The way the film opens sets a very different pace than the one into which it settles: Phoebe, as an adult (beautifully underplayed in voiceover by Lola Kirke), tells Eugene’s story, from the bullet points of his troubled upbringing to the intimacies of his hopes and dreams. But all of the events shared between Eugene and Allison last only a matter of a few days — certainly long enough for him to fall in love with her, and possibly for her to decide she loves him back — while the ups and downs they experience feel more like the evolution of weeks and months. Because there’s so much volatililty, scenes drag when they should be engrossing us further in Eugene and Allison’s goals, making us care about whether she truly cares for him or is just manipulating him, and whether or not he cares which of those is true.
Suffice it to say that this is far from the first story ever told of lovers on the run ever told; Joris-Peyrafitte’s film shares much in common with Arthur Penn’s youth culture standard-bearer Bonnie and Clyde, including its juxtaposition of the characters’ impulsivity and the legends that arise about their crimes. The film also mines the familiar territory of a young man intoxicated by a beautiful and quite possibly dangerous older woman, and the yearning of a hometown individual to escape and explore the world outside his or her city limits. Unfortunately, Allison remains too much of a mystery for either her vulnerability or her calculating authority to register deeply, and Eugene’s schizophrenic immaturity undercuts the dramatic weight of almost every scene. Narratively speaking, one could understand his caution-to-the-wind enthusiasm for helping Allison, and even to go with her, but his willingness to help her fluctuates from one moment to the next, and it becomes exhausting to watch, and impossible to care about.
To that end, there’s a shower scene that exemplifies how badly the filmmakers mangle what should be a home run story. In the moments prior to it, Eugene makes Allison laugh, even charms her, with his observation — his confidence — that he’s going to love her, and she can figure out if she loves him too. After she flirts with the front desk clerk at the motel where they stop for the night, she decides to take a shower, and invites Eugene to join her. The scene does not require nudity, and Joris-Petrafitte frames Robbie out of the shot completely while only Cole’s chest is visible, while the camera pans slowly up to include his face as their conversation progresses. This is a moment of her strength and his vulnerability, her experience and his innocence, as the two fumble and bicker their way into making love. But what are we watching? Two thirds of the frame dominated by a motel wall.
Cole eventually disrobes and we do see them both in the shower as they finally consummate this partnership that has turned ham-fistedly into a romance, but what is the emotion we’re supposed to feel in this moment? Again, a filmmaker doesn’t need to expose his actors to communicate intimacy. But the moment and its staging suggests that this particular filmmaker doesn’t even know what this scene is about — or if it’s not about what the audience is taking away from it, he doesn’t communicate or execute that properly.
Nevertheless, Robbie gamely tries to humanize a character that has been defined almost as a myth from the first time we learn about her, and occasionally succeeds. The actress is herself a bit larger than life, so it suits the legend that blows into young Eugene’s town and his life. But because the movie is told as a story from the perspective of Eugene’s sister about Eugene and the adventure Allison took him on, the character lacks an interior life that’s simultaneously understandable, and a bit disappointing. Meanwhile as, honestly, the real legend whose story is being told, Cole cannot quite square the circle of Eugene’s unpredictable decisions, his shifts in feeling and expectation, and quite frankly his many dumb-crook mistakes that only frustrate viewers because the movie doesn’t seem to lean into that lovestruck recklessness.
Joris-Peyrafitte and Zwart are both early into their careers as storytellers, so hopefully they will repair the shortcomings of this work before embarking on too many others. But in a Hollywood landscape where a Bonnie and Clyde already exists, much less the Bonnie and Clyde, what new dimensions does this add to that legend, or new elements does it explore? (That said, definitely cast Travis Fimmel in a Richard Arlen biopic; he lacks the gravitas to sell this particular character’s pivot to third-act tenderness, but he’d be a knockout as David Armstrong in a remake of Wings.) The film’s 16mm academy-ratio dream sequences and even its impressive, looming storms simply aren’t enough to sweep audiences along for this bumpy ride, especially when the character motivations (much less choices) are so improbable. Ultimately, Dreamland juggles a lot of familiar narrative tropes without saying anything new, so the best that can be said about this Dust Bowl drama is that it effectively enough captures the details of the period that you’ll want a shower afterward.
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