Except I’m the man in the hat.
Eugene’s (Finn Cole) father used to say about their Bismarck home, “This place is cursed.” It didn’t matter that it’s where he and his wife Olivia (Kerry Condon) settled with a bunch of other families to begin building their lives. John Baker simply never thought any good could come from staying. So he left. Olivia and Eugene remained. Dust storm after dust storm swept through that land destroying crops, farms, and hope. The banks subsequently arrived with foreclosure after foreclosure. Olivia Baker eventually became Olivia Evans, her new husband George (Travis Fimmel) became a deputy sheriff, and along came little Phoebe (Darby Camp) as the struggle to survive remained. That’s when a dangerous outlaw entered the frame with a $10,000 bounty everyone saw as a solution.
Could Allison Wells (Margot Robbie) therefore be the person to lift the curse? Could her capture inject enough money into their community to hold the creditors at bay for one or maybe a handful of homesteads in desperate need? Or was she merely one more example that proved its existence—especially for the Baker bloodline? Because as easily as a now seventeen-year-old Eugene and his best friend Jo (Stephen Dinh) might find themselves rich by stumbling upon her before the authorities, she might find him first. And what then? Comic book criminals and the exciting adventures created by their lifestyle have always enamored him. Appeal to that fantasy by offering more than the reward to help her and he’d fall victim to a tornado much worse than dust.
While director Miles Joris-Peyrafitte and screenwriter Nicolaas Zwart know this to be true, they also understand that Eugene wouldn’t see it that way—not at first. Therein lies the title Dreamland and this idea that he may finally be able to escape this dead-end place that drove his father away almost two decades prior. He’s always wondered what it would be like to travel to Mexico and find his Dad on the Gulf Coast. So destiny appears to be shining down upon him when Allison asks for his assistance in procuring a vehicle to head south of the border after finding her holed up in the family barn with a gunshot wound. The money is thus gravy on top he can mail back home without ever returning himself.
That’s Eugene’s dream anyway. Or at least what his sister Phoebe believes it was. Because despite him being the lead insofar as what we watch unfold on-screen, this isn’t actually his story. It’s hers. Phoebe the narrator (Lola Kirke) is doing her best to remember the details of those indelible weeks that changed the face of her family forever. She’s hypothesizing some by giving her half-brother the benefit of the doubt and perhaps adding a layer of romance that might not have been there in order to help swallow the pill of a harsh reality yet to come. She imagines that Allison recruits Eugene by telling him what he needs to hear: she’s not a killer; she robs banks to avenge her own foreclosure; and she’s all alone.
The liberties she takes are authentic if idyllic. She imagines the fear Allison must have felt in that barn without knowing who might walk in. There’s the reality that manipulating Eugene’s actions only goes so far when his youthful naiveté risks her capture and the danger of fairy tale set pieces like the town’s biggest dust storm ever shrouding a getaway before the first rain in months attempts cleansing its conclusion. Phoebe is giving her brother the comic book treatment with complex emotions, uncertain motivations, and potential love that moves beyond the violence, deceit, and stakes of what it truly means to be an outlaw. Dreams never quite come true the way you imagine them and this is no exception. To choose this life isn’t without its sacrifices.
That heartbreak isn’t without its myriad forms of pain either. Whether news that Jo’s family is being run out of town or that his father’s single postcard years ago may signal the impossibility of ever finding him, Eugene is being dealt blow after blow without a sturdy enough foundation to stand tall and absorb them. For all he knows his mother and George will lose their home too. What then? So he hides beneath the possibility of being a bounty hunter and saving the day. He embraces the possibility of being a knight in shining armor for a beautiful woman in need because it provides purpose beyond drowning in his own helplessness. For once the sun rises and Eugene has a mission that matters. He’s all-in.
Cole embodies that role very well, shifting between teenage innocence and an unyielding desire to be seen as a man. The character is quick on his feet when necessary to talk himself out of some jams and perhaps even find salvation without hurting anyone in the process. Except that Allison isn’t some runaway to protect. She’s a criminal. Whether or not she pulled the trigger, a young girl the same age as Phoebe wound up dead on the street during a shootout. Collateral damage therefore follows his every step by extension because he’s seeking to absolve her of everything. He’s infatuated by her occupation and her beauty regardless of knowing she’s doing whatever’s needed to stay out of the sheriff’s crosshairs. Eugene will become trapped by her circumstances.
For her part, Robbie is a standout supporting player who wrestles with her own truths as well as the fantasies she concocts in order to avoid them. The role isn’t as big as you might expect, but her Allison is also not just a throwaway piece to Eugene’s out-of-control puzzle. She is her own person with palpable fears, harrowing regrets, and the room to be more than an opportunistic schemer with no regard for those in her wake. And even though this complexity may be the result of our narrator willing it to be so en route to forgiving Eugene’s responsibility in what happens, it feels real precisely because Phoebe (as the filmmakers’ stand-in) renders it as such. So we care about Allison’s fate with and without him.
And we need that to stick with what ends up being a rather familiar take on a type of story we’ve seen many times. It helps that the cinematography and production design is all top-notch too because we’re able to believe this environment is a lived-in character itself—driving Allison and Eugene towards a cliff edge they may or may not be ready to jump from. Dreamland isn’t Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, but it is an attractive deviation that perhaps skews younger with its coming-of-age nostalgia rising above the plot’s dramatic intrigue. It’s why Joris-Peyrafitte and Zwart can push Eugene and Allison so hard so fast at the end. Because rather than need time to unpack the duo’s impulsive acts, they just need passion to numb the pain.