Dir: Miles Joris-Peyrafitte. Featuring: Finn Cole, Margot Robbie, Travis Fimmel, Kerry Condon, Darby Camp, Lola Kirke. 15, 101 mins
The first we see of Margot Robbie in Dreamland, Miles Joris-Peyrafitte’s Dust Bowl elegy, are those crystal-blue eyes. She arrives into the story, as one character describes, like “a bat outta hell”. Her character, Allison Wells, is a bank robber on the run, with a bounty of $10,000 on her head and tales of bloodshed snapping at her heels.
Allison is a loose, fictional amalgamation of the most notorious female outlaws of the Depression era: Bonnie Parker, Vivian Chase, Eleanor Jarman, Edna Murray. She’s also a shimmering mirage, the promise of a life lived daringly – one that’s unexpectedly delivered into the hands of a young farmboy (Finn Cole’s Eugene). Allison, with a bullet in her leg, has escaped the police and hobbled her way into Eugene’s barn. He finds her there, bloodied but still glamorous. She offers him $20,000 if he’ll help her flee to Mexico.
It’s fascinating to watch an actor like Robbie, who so consciously uses beauty as a tool to define the way her characters drift through the world – whether it’s Tonya Harding or The Wolf of Wall Street’s Naomi Lapaglia. Allison knows how easily she can bring this boy under her spell; she also sees the deadly end that temptation might lead to. Joris-Peyrafitte’s Dreamland is itself suspended somewhere in-between allurement and betrayal. It recognises that the myths America tells itself are just a string of romanticised falsehoods, but still finds itself falling head over heels for them.
Eugene isn’t a fool – and Cole certainly never plays him that way. There’s a stillness and a sense of determination in his looks. Home has nothing to offer him. Here, the dust storms rise up like mountains, choking the life out of everything they pass. Eugene had to watch his father slowly wither away, before he packed up and left for Mexico. His mother (Kerry Condon) married another man, a sheriff’s deputy (Travis Fimmel), who made the house his personal kingdom. Eugene only has a single postcard to remember his father by – and a lingering promise that they will meet again. To pass the days, he loses himself in daydreams and in the pages of comic books, with all their tales of cops and gangsters. Allison’s arrival brings those reveries thrillingly close to reality.
Dreamland, Joris-Peyrafitte’s second feature, is the work of a director confident in his vision, and able to blend influences in a way that feels experimental, rather than like a straight homage. The film’s narration, delivered by Eugene’s younger half-sister (Lola Kirke) decades after the events, seems borrowed from Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven. The vivid colours tie the film to the American Regionalism art movement, where the yellow of the cornfields looked as radiant as the sun. The camera angles are harsh and expressive – a striking seduction scene sees Allison pushed almost entirely out of frame, so that we only see her delicate hands beckoning Eugene closer.
There’s an obviousness to where Dreamland is headed, and Nicolaas Zwart’s script never forces Eugene to reckon with the flimsiness of his self-constructed fantasies. He simply accepts them, whatever the consequences may bring – just as the film’s own gorgeousness may make it easier to look past its flaws.
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