Dreamland, the Dust Bowl, and the Streaming Age

In 2020, streaming is king. And yet, despite so many new releases via Netflix, Amazon, HBO, and premium on-demand outlets, it still feels as if film is currently obfuscated from conversation, from pop culture at large. Blame it on the dwindling monoculture or blame it on the underrated importance (see: marketing benefits) of theatrical, but as I sit here today there are millions of people watching the Netflix Christmas musical Jingle Jangle and nary a single write-up or rigorous tweet about it has caught fire on the interwebz. It turns out papers, people, and many important websites don’t prioritize discussing or covering streaming, even in a time such as this bungled year.

Which brings me to Dreamland, a romantic thriller starring Margot Robbie about a young man who becomes enraptured with a beautiful, injured bank robber when she stumbles onto his family’s farm during the height of the Dust Bowl. Robbie in tow, handsomely mounted, and with the usual period trappings that typically signal an awards campaign, Dreamland has been largely ignored by film pundits and press. I can name at least thirty or forty other movie-movies just like it this year. You have to imagine one of two things: a proper theatrical release would’ve lent some credence to their pedigree, or with rare exception, any project relegated to on-demand viewing is regarded with the same ignorance as it would’ve been in a normal year. Our industry is slow to adapt to the times, and that includes press and punditry. We’re all still waiting for the vaccine to drop, and for theaters to return to power, all the while pretending there’s nothing to see, nothing to write about, less a Tenet or a turgid Oscar play drops. We’re all desperate to write about the films that were important to us when we looked ahead in January.

The longer our new normal is sustained, the more important the Dreamlands (or Junglelands and Greenlands, many “lands” this year) of the world will be. Though small in narrative scale and lacking much sleight of hand, Dreamland is an impressive directorial debut for young filmmaker Miles Joris. He has a keen eye for stark, sun-kissed vistas and sharp parallel editing techniques. The “Searchers” frame, often used in westerns as an homage to John Ford’s classic film, is here utilized in terrible awe of an oncoming dust storm. Eugene Evans (Finn Cole) and Allison Wells (Robbie) open a set of barn doors to find ominous clouds billowing on the horizon, like some terrible, apocalyptic explosion headed straight for them. It’s both terrifying and beautiful, and there are dozens of likewise images sprinkled throughout, in a story that is by turns fascinating and familiar in its depiction of a dysfunctional family living in the Texas outback at the turn of the century. 

Joris explores the fine line between citizen and outlaw, between curious observer and full-blown criminal. Dreamland doesn’t necessarily have anything in particular to say about it, other than to raise questions about the allure of illicit activities, especially for a young man living a sheltered existence in the middle of nowhere. Eugene dreams of finding his long-lost father, supposedly living somewhere near the Gulf of Mexico. He’s deluded himself into thinking he’ll alter his lot in life if only he can make it there, out of his barren prison. He’s a quietly rebellious teenager, shoplifting comic-books about outlaws and defying his stepfather (Travis Fimmel) to leave the house in the middle of the night. It’s no surprise then that he’s taken by Allison’s magnetic wiles when he finds her bleeding by gunshot in their barn one night. He suddenly has an escape route to Mexico, and it runs through the prettiest girl he’s ever seen. 

Garrett Hedlund briefly appears as a former partner-in-crime of Allison’s, a subplot that could’ve used more time to learn of her life before the farm. As Eugene’s worrisome mother, actress Kerry Condon prevents her from becoming yet another 1930’s doormat, a housewife at the mercy of her husband. She’s none of that, though she is overwhelmed by the perils of the moment. As her lawman spouse, Fimmel avoids caricature in portraying a strict, rule-abiding man doing his best and failing to hold their family together. He’s too hard on Eugene, even if he’s right to side-eye him as we eventually learn the lengths to which this boy will go in his runaway quest. Cole isn’t the most captivating screen presence, but his understated performance is just right for a role so full of inhibition and repression. Despite his wayward gaze, he’s still a boy that knows nothing of the world and often comes across as naive, even traditional himself when confronted with the reality of Allison’s life. That being said, it’s sometimes difficult to root for a kid who’s so willing to put his mother, stepfather, and younger sister (Darby Camp) through so much strife. 

Not much need be said about Robbie, for it seems she can do no wrong. She embodies Allison with an internal life and vigor, a charisma which makes it easy to see why Eugene would almost instantly fall for her. Their relationship is a slow boil, from a kid simply helping a pretty criminal with stars in his eyes to eventually assisting her criminal exploits. More mature and more experienced in every way, she clearly has the upper hand and yet never uses it to manipulate him, even if some lies are necessary in protecting his fragile mindset. Cole’s admiration of outlawing, and the fame that comes with it, recalls to some extent the first half of The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. Between such themes, a southern twang narrator (Lola Kirke), and a memorable, violin-heavy score, it’s apparent the influence of Andrew Dominik’s modern classic on Dreamland

The best scene of the film is a rarity in modern cinema: a tender, somewhat erotic sequence in a tub as shy Eugene joins Allison for a shower in their hotel room. What begins as an embrace fraught with tension turns into an emotional triumph for both characters. They finally cast aside all pretenses and consummate their flirtations, their long-standing sexual tensions. It’s a gentle, gorgeous reprieve from the outside world hunting them, and what it underlines is that for all its familiarity Dreamland is not a film that should be completely ignored. So it goes for the rest of Hollywood’s output in these trying times for the industry, or so we hope. 

Grade: B

Currently available for rental and purchase on Fandango Now, VUDU, and Google Play

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