The myth of Bonnie and Clyde dies hard, especially because of Arthur Penn’s romanticized crime film, which hit screens with a splatter in 1967. That movie’s special mix of Hollywood chic and frenzied violence rekindled the legend and kept it smoldering. Americans love their outlaws and really love them running wild, partly because the world’s most powerful country clings to its foundational us-versus-them identity.
The hollow genre exercise “Dreamland” is the latest to take its lead from America’s favorite bandit couple, even as it tries to chart its own course. This time the focus is on a 17-year-old, Eugene (the very adult Finn Cole), whose failed family farm is part of a larger national catastrophe. It’s the 1930s and times are tough, or so the movie insists, even if the production design, costumes, etc. show otherwise. Eugene has the usual back story of an absent dad and stern stepfather (a fine Travis Fimmel). And, like every human to walk the earth (and most who crop up in fiction), Eugene has dreams.
Eugene wants to help his family, though apparently not enough to work, preferring to wander and read pulp magazines. The promise of a hefty reward for a bank robber, Allison Wells (a criminally wasted Margot Robbie), seems to show him the way, but mostly puts his fanciful imagination into further overdrive. He decides he will find Allison, a plan that takes a far-fetched turn after she’s wounded and takes refuge in his family’s barn. The movie more or less writes itself after she hikes her skirt and he tends her wound. Dust swirls and so do passions, and before long this unremarkable pipsqueak and outlaw woman have become a wholly unbelievable couple on the run.
It’s a lot of hooey and might have been at least tolerable if the movie had been rougher, meaner, tighter, and if the filmmakers — the writer is Nicolaas Zwart, the director is Miles Joris-Peyrafitte — had never watched a Terrence Malick movie. There are honeyed landscapes, still-life shots of crepuscular, peopleless rooms and a voice-over (by Lola Kirke), which tries to elevate Eugene’s story with penny-ante psychology and a splash of mythopoetic fancy. “The land turned on us,” the narrator says early on, pinning the Dust Bowl on Mother Nature, “and then the banks came.” So Eugene hides in the barn to read Black Mask magazine and “daydream about his destiny.”
We see Eugene in that barn, his eyes fixed on his magazine and one hand down the front of his pants. He’s “fantasizing about a life like his heroes,” the narrator reassures us as there’s a cut to a scene of bank robbers using hostages as shields against police fire. The implication here is that Eugene is turned on by the violence he reads about, an idea that the movie rationalizes by ending the robbery with a punctuating close-up of Allison’s face. Mass culture, it turns out, was just the first temptation for Eugene, who finds his second in another movieland Jezebel, who, the moment she appears, makes it clear that we’re watching a movie about the wrong character.
Rated R for the usual gun violence and gratuitous female nudity. Running time: 1 hour 41 minutes. In theaters. Please consult the guidelines outlined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention before watching movies inside theaters.
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