Directed by Bruce McDonald. Screenplay by Tony Burgess & Patrick Whistler.
Starring Stephen McHattie, Juliette Lewis, Henry Rollins, Tómas Lemarquis, Lisa Houle, Hana Sofia Lopes, Barbara Helemans, Guillaume Kerbusch, Astrid Roos, & Stéphane Bissot.
Calach Films / Goodbye Productions / Velvet Films
Not Rated / 92 minutes
Comedy / Crime / Fantasy / Horror
DISCLAIMER: The following essay contains significant spoilers. Turn back, lest ye be spoiled!
No doubt in my mind Bruce McDonald is one of Canada’s greatest film directors. Seeing Hard Core Logo at age 15 was a formative experience for me, both in terms of my love for cinema and my adoration of punk rock. After that I travelled backwards through his filmography, watching Highway 61 and Roadkill, and my big ole Canadian heart kept swelling with love. Another great thing about McDonald is how his style has evolved. Over the past dozen years, McDonald’s given us the mesmerising, one-of-a-kind Pontypool, Hellions— an ultra-weird, magnificent, Halloween acid trip— and now he’s delivered his strangest tale yet, Dreamland.
McDonald’s new film follows a hitman called Johnny (Stephen McHattie). He works for a nasty club owner/pimp, Hercules (Henry Rollins). Things get bad for Johnny when one of his killings leads Hercules into trafficking underage girls— a bridge too far for his morals. Hercules also tasks Johnny with lopping off the finger of a jazz musician (also McHattie) who slighted him. Meanwhile, the Countess (Juliette Lewis) is planning a big, strange wedding for one of Hercules’s girls and her affluent vampire brother (Tómas Lemarquis). Johnny can’t sit by to let that happen. All these strange plot pieces eventually fit together like a macabre puzzle, and fall apart spectacularly just as quick.
A significant amount of people will watch this and not enjoy it by virtue of its oddness. Some may not even make it all the way through to the end. McDonald’s film is surreal, and the story— written by Tony Burgess and Patrick Whistler— is less like a linear screenplay than it is a mood board full of sociopolitical resistance and grim, hilarious satire. Dreamland can be taken as an allegorical wake-up call to all of those asleep and unaware of the depraved depths to which those in power will sink when left unchecked, brought to life by ruthless gangsters and predatory vampires. Johnny, for better or worse, is waking himself up, no longer willing to be part of a capitalist machine that swallows the vulnerable whole.
Strap in for this one. We’re going LONG and WIDE!
“We start out as a bunch of people,
but we end up as one.”
Something established very quickly in McDonald’s film is how capitalism structures our lives and how that usually involves our bodies. First, we see Johnny the hitman take out several “rich fuck pedos.” The basis of a gun for hire is that money gets exchanged for the elimination of human lives. We then see Hercules’s club where he trafficks girls. Sex work itself involves the body’s use as a commodity, which is void of any female liberation here due to the fact Hercules controls women, and twice as bad after he starts to sell underage girls. More than that, virgin female bodies are more profitable, as seen with the Vampire, who’ll only accept the purest flesh and blood for his disgusting marriage.
Maybe the most literal body commodity in the film involves the finger of the jazz player. Hercules wants the musician’s finger as a form of payment— the exchange of a good (the finger) for a service (cleans the slate between Johnny and Hercules). Johnny’s the one who really doubles down, and this is where we really see that although Johnny’s the antihero of our story, he really puts pressure on the boundaries of that antiheroism. He’s a part of the capitalist machine already. His use of the homeless man to get a finger for Hercules shows how deeply entrenched in the system he really is by way of paying the man money and liquor for his appendage. The hilarious tragedy? Hercules can tell the finger doesn’t belong to the musician. When Johnny later cuts his own finger it becomes a kind of penance. He’s severing himself from being a servant of the bourgeois class, a sacrifice not to appease Hercules but to gain back a sense of dignity despite everything he’s done in the name of capitalism.Two potentially throwaway shots are, for me, actually highly significant, and crystallise larger themes. They involve street graffiti: one is STOP TTIP and the other is ACAB. The entire movie is essentially about those in power v. those who are powerless. ACAB (All Cops are Bastards) is a statement we’re seeing a lot of currently as I write this with Black Lives Matter protests rightfully raging worldwide. It’s also representative of a frustration with the greater structural inequalities built into society’s institutions, leading us to the TTIP graffiti. TTIP stands for Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, a proposed trade agreement that many suggest has much potential to threaten democracy, the sovereignty of nations, workers rights, health and safety regulations, and the environment. The agreement, to some, represents an unfettered global capitalism that could make life much worse for people outside the 1%. Dreamland synthesises all this anger at unchecked power disturbingly, and satirically, in the Vampire’s wedding.
The Vampire acts as a symbol to represent the secret darkness of something like the TTIP— he’s the Corporate Vampire. Author Susan George (Shadow Sovereigns: How Global Corporations are Seizing Power) has referred to vampires in the context of big business, specifically how deals like the highly secretive TTIP agreement could not withstand the light of day. That is to say, these secretive business deals, like a vampire, would wither and die if exposed to sunlight. If the public were allowed to see all of the TTIP, for instance, there’d surely be many more protests than there have been already. Why else keep it secret from the public?
The Vampire’s wedding is more like a Bilderberg meeting than a wedding at all, bringing together an international group of creeps. Darker still, he and the Countess have a personal assistant, Fegelein— named for Hermann Fegelein, a high-ranking commander in the Waffen-SS. Fascism is alive and well here in connection with the Vampire’s family, as well as the fact the Countess mentions her husband’s “light atrocities.” The wedding reception devolves into a figurative orgy of madness, full of anger, gluttony, lechery, and depravity. The Vampire and his international friends, of all cultures, creeds, and races, are joined together by two things: the exploitation of children and money. And the sole voice of reason with any power to make a change is Johnny.
So, why exactly are Johnny and the musician one and the same?
Johnny and the jazz trumpeter symbolise the change possible when we realise the world has gone rotten, and the duality of human beings under capitalism. The two identical men, each on one side of the equation, beg the question: who you do you want to be? Do you take part in a demeaning, misogynistic, violent class system? Or, will you try to make a change? The musician may not take an active part in the child sex trafficking, but he willingly takes money and drugs from the people who do, and his passive complicity makes him part of the system. Johnny makes a conscious decision to reject the capitalist order of the Vampire and his friends, so much so he actively works to dismantle the system resulting in a wild, confused firefight at the reception. “I Saved the World Today” by Eurythmics serves as a perfectly reworked jazz ballad marking Johnny’s final triumph in this insane sociopolitical allegory.
“Hey, hey, I saved the world today
Everybody’s happy now
The bad thing’s gone away
And everybody’s happy now
The good thing’s here to stay
Please let it stay”
— “I Saved the World Today”
This film won’t be for everyone. It’s a strange story with multiple plots running throughout, and much of it feels symbolic. If that’s not your bag then it’ll certainly be hard to get into Dreamland. For those willing to dig, you’ll find more below the surface worth sinking your teeth into deeper. Burgess and Whistler have crafted an allegorical screenplay that McDonald takes to surreal heights, mixing genres like paint, as if we’re watching an old noir crossed with an experimental arthouse film. McHattie’s performance roots us in a very real emotional place, regardless how delightfully far out there the film takes us.
Dreamland has intelligent things to say about power which, like the best satire, is buried in layers. There are times it feels like McDonald’s steering us through several different films, moving from pitch black comedy to fantasy to scenes of gripping horror. And in that sense the film is universal, stretching across genre boundaries the way the Vampire’s eerie reach spans the globe. Global capitalism is treated as a vampiric force in the film that seeks to drain us all, though there seems to be hope in another form of universality: the “universal blood” Vera gives to Johnny. Vera’s a representative of the working class, her universal donor status symbolises the class unity that will help save us, just as it allows Johnny to continue to fight for “the little children.” We are all part of the system. We all just have to decide whether we want to be hypnotised by it like the drug-addled musician who’s called onstage to play on command for those who hold the power, or if we’re able to break free and make a drastic change like Johnny, no matter what it takes.