At 27 years old, Miles Joris-Peyrafitte proves himself to be one of the most exciting young directors around with Dreamland, a drama with dazzling visuals, subtle performances and deft nods to classics like Days of Heaven and Bonnie and Clyde. Margot Robbie produced and stars as Allison, a wily, seductive bank robber on the run. Finn Cole is Eugene, the innocent young man who falls under her spell. That story is hardly new, and while Dreamland doesn’t entirely overcome its familiar trajectory, the film is so stunning in every other way that its narrative shortcoming hardly matters.
The film begins with a voiceover by Lola Kirke as Eugene’s half-sister, Phoebe, who looks back at the events of 20 years before, in 1935. She was a child, and dust storms and drought in Texas were destroying the family farm and everything around it. The voiceover and its elegiac tone recurs sporadically through the film, evoking the sister’s narrative in Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven.
A dazzling young director enlivens a familiar story.
Lyle Vincent’s cinematography instantly invokes that film as well, without seeming derivative. His wide images of dust and barren ground, of the small town and the lonely farm, are bleak, but the shades of brown are also delicate and beautiful. The photography is very different from Vincent’s shadowy black-and-white work on the vampire story A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, which was also impressive. As much as the director, Vincent gives Dreamland its style, which is realistic in its attention to character and poetic in its imagery.
The narrator tells us that Eugene’s father disappeared when he was five, leaving him with a postcard and a dream of finding his father in Mexico. When we find him as a young man, he is addicted to detective stories, idolizes glamorous criminals and longs for adventure. But his riskiest move has been stealing a pulp detective magazine from the local store.
When a bank robbery leaves several people dead, including a young girl, Allison’s face appears on a Wanted poster offering a $10,000 reward, enticement that grips the impoverished farmers and townspeople. But it’s Eugene who stumbles across her, hiding in the family’s barn, a bullet in her leg. She is everything he could want, even more than money. He cleans her wound and removes the bullet. Joris-Peyrafitte is especially good at modulating when to take his time, as he does in that scene, as Eugene is slowly enlisted, first as her lifesaver and soon as her getaway man.
Robbie wears clumsy 1930s shoes, and has dirt and bloody smudges on her cheeks. But let’s face it, she still looks like Margot Robbie, with makeup so perfect it seems like she’s not wearing any; like female criminals in old movies, she has to look at least a little glam. But she is quietly fearless in creating Allison as an enigma. Through all the twists and turns of her character, Robbie refuses to allow Allison to become a simple, sympathetic heroine.
Allison swears to Eugene that she has not killed anyone, but the narrator tells us that Allison tailors her story to the audience. That sets up the guessing game the film will follow through. Exactly how deceptive is she being? How blinded by his attraction and the possibility of adventure will he remain? Is she his ticket to the future or his destruction?
As the answers take shape, Cole (from the series Peaky Blinders and Animal Kingdom) gives a nuanced performance that charts the complicated way the character reacts. Eugene is not stupid, but he is besotted. Late in the film, with the pair on the run as we knew they would eventually be, his eyes have been opened enough so that he asks Allison if he’s being used. He’s also so in love that he chooses to believe her when she says he is not.
He asks her that question after she has invited him to join her in the shower in their motel room, a scene filmed so that Robbie is hidden on the right behind a wall for most of the encounter. At first we see only Eugene’s face on the left looking at her, questioning her, deciding whether to lose his virginity to her. That is the kind of inventive visual that the film drops in occasionally. Throughout, the aspect ratio changes when Eugene envisions a future in Mexico or some other idealized scene. At those moments a shot of a sunset or the ocean appears as a beautiful square shape, distinct from real life.
There are set pieces as vital to the film as the story, including a town dance that is lively and full of folksy fiddle music. It establishes the life of the community, and also provides a setting from which Eugene slips away to pilfer and destroy evidence the police have against Allison.
The special effects only go over the top once, when giant billowing clouds of dust appear spanning the horizon. It is a distractingly artificial moment that briefly takes us out of the film’s fictional world. A better effect has Eugene’s stepfather bracing himself against the wind, trying to make his way to the barn, as we see him though a veil of dust that covers the screen. Meredith Lippincott’s production design feels entirely lived in.
Travis Fimmel is gripping as the oppressive stepfather, and Kerry Condon empathetic as Eugene’s worried mother. As the young Phoebe, Darby Cole (who is in the new season of Big Little Lies) in wonderfully natural, a child who is suspicious and precocious yet believable.
Joris-Peyrafitte’s first feature, As You Are, won a Sundance Special Jury Prize in 2016. That achievement was obviously no fluke. The final image of Dreamland is an overhead shot of a body lying in a pool of blood on the drought-ravaged dirt, as rain finally starts to fall. Harsh and beautiful, it is just the right ending to this lovely, evocative film.
Production companies: Automatik Entertainment, LuckyChap Entertainment, Romulus Entertainment
Cast: Margot Robbie, Finn Cole, Travis Fimmel, Kerry Condon, Darby Camp
Director: Miles Joris-Peyrafitte
Screenwriter: Nicolaas Zwart
Producers: Brad Feinstein, Margot Robbie, Josey McNamara, Tom Ackerley, Rian Cahill, Brian Kavanaugh-Jones
Director of Photography: Lyle Vincent
Production designer: Meredith Lippincott
Costume designer: Rachel Dainer-Best
Editors: Brett Reed, Abbi Jutkowitz
Music: Patrick Higgins
Casting directors: Jodi Angstreich, Laura Rosenthal
Sales: Endeavor Content
Venue: Tribeca Film Festival (Spotlight Narrative)