The dust in “Dreamland” is so thick, it makes your eyeballs itch. Clouds of the stuff billow up from dirt roads with every car that passes, swarming dark and angry as a massive bee horde when the winds pick up. And when the air is still, it smudges the cheeks of the film’s characters — poor, small-town Texas farmers with faces as desiccated as their fields — rendering them haunted, like the Depression-era sharecroppers Walker Evans photographed in “Let Us Now Praise Famous Men.” Dreams, it seems, are all these opportunity-strapped Americans have going for them: dreams nourished by pulp crime magazines and, maybe, by the movies, although it’s doubtful this bedraggled settlement can support a cinema.
From its opening lines of narration, Miles Joris-Peyrafitte’s revisionist outlaw saga endeavors to set the record straight about one Eugene Evans, a naïve Texas teen who ran off with on-the-law beauty Allison Wells and wound up etched beside her legend in history. These words are spoken by Eugene’s kid sister, Phoebe (Lola Kirke performs the older-wiser thoughts of child actor Darby Camp), with a kind of purity that recalls the dreamy voiceover of Terrence Malick’s “Days of Heaven” — as mythic an influence on “Dreamland” as Arthur Penn’s “Bonnie and Clyde,” which could have been its prequel, had Clyde died and Bonnie stumbled away wounded from that climactic shootout.
If you don’t remember whatever version of the Allison Wells story Phoebe so earnestly wants to correct, that’s because no such bank robber as Allison Wells ever existed. And yet, there’s a plausibility to the tall tale Joris-Peyrafitte is selling here that rings truer that plenty of films based in fact. Maybe that’s because screenwriter Nicolaas Zwart approaches this mythic American genre through the storm cellar rather than the front door: While Allison (Margot Robbie) and her photogenic partner-in-crime (Garrett Hedlund) are shooting up banks somewhere offscreen, the film opens on Eugene (Finn Cole), saddled with mundane chores and thirsty for excitement.
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No sooner does Eugene hear that Allison’s camped out somewhere in the vicinity, and that there’s a $10,000 reward for her capture, than he discovers her bleeding behind a tractor in the family’s barn. The money would be more than enough to rescue the family farm from foreclosure, but as outlaws go, Allison isn’t anything like he expected. For starters, she’s looks like Margot Robbie — and not the dumpified, down-to-earth version made up (or down?) in “Mary Queen of Scots.” This is Robbie at her radiant best: movie-star gorgeous, at this naïve young man’s mercy, batting her eyes and enticing him with the possibility that his nobody life might just have gotten interesting.
At that moment, Eugene decides not to collect the bounty, but to help this fugitive, who assures him that the blood-soaked stories he’s heard aren’t true — though her guilty flashbacks, parceled out in fragments, suggest otherwise. Zwart paints Eugene like a fame-struck ingenue, seduced by whatever glamorous south-of-the-border fantasy he imagines awaits if they were to run off together. (His father fled to Mexico when he was a kid, leaving him a postcard, and now he lives with his stepfather, a stern sheriff’s deputy played by a square and weathered-looking Travis Fimmel.) Allison serves as something of a femme fatale, bewitching the boy, whose every questionable decision is his own.
Obviously, there’s no room for a “Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head” interlude (which seemed out of place even for Butch Cassidy) in a town where it never rains, so Zwart concocts a midnight swim during which Eugene and Allison can bond, sowing sexual tension that pays off later in an evocatively shot hotel tub scene. Though the chemistry between these two characters feels genuine (Cole, who was a regular on the series “Peaky Blinders” and “Animal Kingdom,” gives a star-making performance here, opposite the ever-impressive Robbie), “Dreamland” spends a bit too much time standing still, holed up with Allison in the Evans’ barn, or waiting for the right moment to make their break.
Maybe the filmmakers felt it was more realistic for the bond between these two to temper slowly, although those early looks pack more strength than the movie realizes. The movie races when they’re together, but drags during those intervals when Eugene is off running errands, telling fibs to his folks, or stealing first small necessities — food, clean clothes, etc. — and later bigger-league things, including Allison’s police file from the station and the getaway vehicle they’ll need to skip town.
As Eugene’s minor transgressions compound into outright crimes, “Dreamland” positions itself for that inevitable escape, at which point the film finally shifts gears, becoming at last the bandits-on-the-run spree we’ve been anticipating all along — although strangely, it’s disappointing to note that at no point does the movie really take off. It’s gorgeous, yes, and texturally vivid enough to leave your mouth dry at the sight of all that dust, but Zwart’s script ultimately takes too long to get rolling, and when it does, the directorial vision that has so far distinguished “Dreamland” from other films like it gives way to generic tendencies: a close call with a bumpkin cop who pulls them over for speeding, a giddy bank robbery (Eugene’s first) nervously captured in a single shot.
Momentum problems aside, “Dreamland” has such a strong identity of its own, it’s hard to believe that the project is just Joris-Peyrafitte’s second feature. Certainly, cinematographer Lyle Vincent (Ana Lily Amirpour’s go-to DP) deserves a hefty share of the credit, although it was presumably Joris-Peyrafitte’s idea to alternate between bold widescreen compositions and the square 8mm format used to represent the duo’s dreams: projections into the future, shot like celebrity home movies (in anachronistic color), of the couple frolicking in period bathing suits along the Mexican coast. Several sequences — including a massive CG dust storm, and a poignant cornfield scene that ends with a floating camera peering down as rain falls around it — are quite literally arresting. As for Eugene’s fate, it’s more romantic than realistic, despite his kid sister’s assurances to the contrary.