There are not many films set in Luxembourg. But films about a cadaverous hitman who gets a sudden attack of conscience and sets out to rescue an innocent teenage girl from her fate as a vampire’s child bride…set in Luxembourg? Well, they’re even rarer. Welcome to Dreamland.
Bruce McDonald, the director of 2008’s Pontypool returns here with his regular collaborator Tony Burgess and the star of that earlier film, the John Carradine lookalike, Stephen McHattie, to prove once again that Canadians can be rather quirky people in a film that is impossible to explain but I’m going to have a crack at it anyway.
McHattie stars here as a hired gun in the ‘Man With No Name’ tradition. A strong, silent man of few words, he works as an enforcer for Hercules, a brash, motormouth mobster played by Henry Rollins. When the hitman is tasked with taking out two Egyptian businessmen and two Teutonic Frauleins he realises, a little too late, that his boss has entered the child trafficking business. His horror at this decision is magnified when a young boy comes calling at his door requesting his help in finding his sister. Realising that Hercules has her, he orchestrates a plan that he hopes will allow him to return her unharmed. Hercules wants him to decapitate the little finger of a heroin-addicted trumpeter who is currently the guest-cum-captive of the Countess (Juliette Lewis) for a perceived slight. Weirdly, the trumpeter, known only as ‘Maestro’ is also played by McHattie, though the fact that these two characters are doppelgangers is never actually referenced by anyone. The now less than loyal hitman elects to snip of the pinky of a homeless man and present it to Hercules, hoping to pass it off as the Maestro’s. In return for doing this duty, he wants the young girl. There’s just a couple of small problems; the child has been promised to the brother of the Countess (played by Tómas Lemarquis) who just happens to be a vampire, and the Maestro’s pinky has a blackened fingernail, something which the one presented to Hercules does not most emphatically have.
If that all sounds wild and lurid enough, wait until you factor in a gun-toting international delegation of (I’m guessing) vampires arriving at Luxembourg as wedding guests, dangerous Reservoir Dogs-suited children who stalk the absconding hitman, a pawn shop where you can get blood transfusions run by a man whose donor-wife wants him dead, a curious hinterland where identities seem to merge, and a cabaret club called Al Qaeda.
As you can probably tell, Dreamland is as tricky to pin down as jelly to a wall. In it’s own peculiarly surreal way it is quite noirish – McHattie’s strung-out Maestro is a classic archetype of the genre, whilst Lisa Houle (McHattie’s real-life wife) is the moll with the kind heart who helps him with his task – but it’s also quite traditional too in its dark fantasy, Grimms’ fairy tale depiction of horror, with its Luxembourgian medieval castle housing a sinister evil that our warrior hero must infiltrate to rescue the young damsel in distress. I’ve seen it labelled as a neo-noir film, but the only genuine label that I can personally ascribe to it is that of ‘cult’. Of course the problem is that more sniffier critics than I may argue that cult is a label that can only come with time. Whilst it’ll no doubt be interesting to see what status Dreamland may achieve via word-of-mouth in the forthcoming years, I’m inclined to counter-argue such critics with the fact that the works of Alex Cox and David Lynch (auteurs I suspect Dreamland, and McDonald and Burgess are influenced by) were immediately, and rightly, hailed as cults upon release.
Performance-wise, I was really struck here by Stephen McHattie who possesses a genuine charisma in front of the camera and seizes the possibilities of the dual leading role with both hands. As the hitman, he’s noticeably more dishevelled, his hair scraggly and long beneath a battered fedora, than the Maestro, clad solely in austere black and with shorter, styled hair. But he’s also skillful enough as an actor to approach each role as to separate individuals, investing each character with different, distinctive body language and different vocal cadences. The hitman is weatherbeaten from his years of violence, but he remains strong. The Maestro is idiosyncratic, jittery and weak from his addiction. Aside from McHattie, the other standout is Henry Rollins as Hercules. It’s sometimes easy for American actors to stick out like a sore thumb in small and eccentric indie features shot in another country, and whilst Hercules is a character who is so overbearingly large to genuinely be at odds with the world around him, it’s arguable that the hardcore punk singer Rollins is the actor who gets the cult appeal of Dreamland the most. Many will no doubt mention Juliette Lewis here as the bigger Hollywood name, but her performance is much more campy and less grounded in a peculiar reality than Rollins keeps his repugnant enforcer. It works, because by the time that Tómas Lemarquis appears as her Nosferatu-like brother, lips smacking at the air, the film ramps up the peculiarity and the humour inherent in the increasingly surreal situation.
I especially liked the moment where Juliette Lewis expresses her wish that, ahead of her brother’s big day, the palace be dressed with the flags of each nation that the guests represent; like a NATO wedding. “But no Union Jacks please” she instructs. “Bit of a migraine trigger” Given the three-year-long headache Europe has endured over the UK’s decision to leave the EU, I can only presume this was a sly, and very funny, Brexit joke. And who doesn’t want to hear McHattie cover the 1999 Eurythmics hit ‘I Saved the World Today’?