It may seem strange to claim that an actor whose IMDB page currently lists 213 performing credits has been under-utilized throughout his career, but that’s the case with Canadian character actor Stephen McHattie. Thanks to the vast amount of American productions that shoot north of the border for tax reasons, the Canuck star has never been out of work, but meaty roles have largely eluded him, and he’s best known to casual viewers as “that guy” who crops up in baddy of the week roles in TV shows.
McHattie’s meatiest role arguably came courtesy of another stalwart of Canadian cinema, director Bruce McDonald, who cast him in the lead role of a gravelly voiced radio show host in his 2008 horror movie
Pontypool, perhaps the most interesting of the wave of zombie movies that proliferated during the noughties. McHattie reteams with both McDonald and Pontypool writer Tony Burgess for Dreamland, which offers him not one, but two lead roles. The movie will be available on VOD platforms June 5.
The first role sees McHattie play a heroin addicted trumpeter referred to only as “Maestro.” The musician is one of those classic noir archetypes, an artist trapped in a world of criminality because it’s the only place that allows for his temperamental idiosyncrasies. Living in a near future Luxembourg, Maestro is kept under lock and key in the castle cum hotel where he performs for a mix of gangsters and aristocrats, occasionally sneaking out for a fix. He’s made an enemy of local mobster and child trafficker Hercules (a miscast Henry Rollins), who tasks his top enforcer, Johnny Deadeyes (McHattie’s second role), with chopping off Maestro’s pinky finger before he performs at a special banquet to be thrown that night by the local countess (Juliette Lewis).
Johnny has turned against his master since he started dealing in child prostitution, and instead of taking the trumpeter’s finger he pays off a homeless man with a bottle of whiskey for his pinky instead. I guess he really likes jazz. When the young boy that lives next door to Johnny asks for his help in rescuing his 14-year-old sister from the clutches of Hercules, Johnny’s conscience kicks into gear and he accepts that he now has to go to war with his employer.
Something that many filmmakers can’t seem to grasp is that you can’t set out to make a cult film. History and the public decides whether or not a movie earns a cult status - it’s not something that can be engineered. Yet we see many movies that stink of a desperate attempt to appeal to a niche audience that doesn’t yet exist, and I’ve rolled my eyes at every press release that pitches an unreleased production as a “cult movie.”
Dreamland is a classic example of a pre-packaged, “just add water”, wannabe cult movie, filled with “quirky” and “eccentric” characters and low on story or thematic depth. McDonald throws in eccentricities like casting McHattie in dual roles for no real discernible purpose, having children play hitmen and pulling a vampire out of the film’s ass in a final act of desperation. But it all feels shallow and there’s no trace of an auteur at play here, simply a filmmaker aping the likes of David Lynch and in particular, Alan Rudolph, whose neo-noir masterpiece and proper cult movie Trouble in Mind this leans heavily on, right down to ripping off its climax and melancholic jazz score.
It’s nice to see McHattie given a role he can chew on, and his commitment to the film’s pseudo surreality keeps you invested up to the point where you realize it’s going nowhere of note. There are brief glimpses of McDonald’s black humor, like when Maestro’s attempt to win back his pawned trumpet at gunpoint takes a twist when the pawnbroker’s wife encourages him to kill her husband. But Dreamland is just trying too damn hard, constantly poking us in the ribs and begging us to find it all so crazy. It’s the cinematic equivalent of one of those workplace signs that reads “You don’t have to be mad to work here, but it helps.”
Dreamland 2 ½ stars out of 5
Directed by: Bruce McDonald; Starring: Juliette Lewis, Stephen McHattie, Henry Rollins, Tómas Lemarquis, Lisa Houle
Eric Hillis is a film critic living in Dublin who runs the website TheMovieWaffler.com