The very end of Canadian director Bruce McDonald’s 2008 feature “Pontypool” featured a brief post-credits coda. The smart, scuzzy zombie movie (a stellar example of turning resource limitations into a virtue), closed with a dream or a hallucination in which the besieged radio DJ (Stephen McHattie) and his producer (Lisa Houle) were suddenly remade as ’40s-style film noir archetypes, giving each other the pulpy monikers “Johnny Dead Eyes” and “Lisa the Killer.” As unnecessary as that epilogue was, McDonald has reunited with his stars 12 years later, to make a whole unnecessary movie of it: the strenuously surreal, tawdry and tedious “Dreamland.”
Apparently aiming for a kind of seamy Lynchian vibe but lacking the meticulous imagination and uncanny internal logic that underpins even Lynch’s most surreal outings “Dreamland” cooks up an unsavory child sex trafficking storyline as the framework on which to hang its garish jumble of genre stereotypes. Johnny (McHattie) is a grizzled hitman living in an oddly crime-ridden but picturesque Middle European town (the film was shot in Luxembourg and Belgium), who discovers he has a heart when the little girl downstairs is procured by his sometime employer, local gangster Hercules (Henry Rollins). So plot-wise, the screenplay, from Patrick Whistler and Tony Burgess (who also wrote “Pontypool”), seems to be grabbing at hitman-saves-a-kid touchpoints like “The Professional” and “You Were Never Really Here,” but only ever coming away with a handful of random pages. The resultant gaps are then caulked in messily with faux-profound hard-boiled monologuing and a supporting cast of thinly drawn caricatures.
The girl (Thémis Pauwels) is to be the child bride at a wedding hosted by — every town in Europe has one — an evil Countess (Juliette Lewis). She has been confined to her opulent palace due to “light atrocities,” and intends the reception to be a grand meeting of similarly depraved global heads of state, who will be serenaded by the soothing jazz of a junkie trumpeter known only as the Maestro (also McHattie). Oh, and the bridegroom (Tómas Lemarquis), who is the Countess’ brother, is a vampire.
It’s easy to see why McDonald might be so enamored of McHattie, with his fabulous gravel-driveway voice and brimstone-preacher face, that he offers him a double role, but neither the hitman nor the trumpeter give the actor much to do, nor is the connection between the two ever properly mined for its eerie doppelganger potential. Houle is relegated to a thankless role as an unconvincing femme fatale, shrouded in feathers and cigarette smoke, who morphs into an only slightly more convincing Girl Friday when Johnny mounts his last-ditch rescue attempt. Elsewhere, the performances offer a whole deli counter of assorted ham: from Rollins’ flamboyant, choleric mobster to Lewis’ manic psycho nightmare Countess to, most baffling of all, Lemarquis’ cartoonish vampire, who is roughly as terrifying as Count Chocula.
As silly as it all is, “Dreamland” looks nice enough in DP Richard Van Oosterhout’s careful, richly paletted images, even if at times the sterility of digital reinforces the impression of the whole thing as a game of dress-up in which no one can be expected to truly believe. Jonathan Goldsmith’s score, however is a consistent pleasure, with bluesy saxophone blares sounding over ominous percussion and giving the film whatever real noirish texture it has. And McHattie’s scratchy falsetto rendition of the Eurythmics’ “I Saved the World Today,” performed during the tiresome shoot-’em-up climax, is likewise an unexpected treat, if one that the film hardly earns.
In the past, as exemplified by the pared-back, idea-laden horror of “Pontypool” and the charming, deceptively slight road movie “Weirdos,” McDonald proved himself adept at making a lot out of very little. Here, occasional flashes of wit aside, he performs that alchemy in unfortunate reverse. This film, adhering grimly to a facile idea of surreality, is laden down with quirk and meaningless incident: There are bellhop uniforms and impromptu blood transfusions, “Bugsy Malone”-style kid gangsters and finger amputations via cigar-cutter. And why simply have a bad guy when you can have a foreign-accented bad guy with an oxygen tube in his nose being pushed in a wheelchair by a henchman drinking from a juicebox?
So little of this fussiness has any consequence from one scene to the next that it’s all too easy to become disengaged from the film’s shonky shenanigans. From there, you may indeed drift off into a dreamland of your own but if so, hopefully you can keep to yourself: For all its salaciousness and scenery-chewing, it’s the dullness of “Dreamland” that provides further proof that dreams tend to be of fascination mainly — perhaps only — to the dreamer.