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Review: Waking up from ‘Dreamland’ could stand to be rougher

Margot Robbie plays an injured Dust Bowl-era bank robber hiding out on a ruined farm in "Dreamland."
Did you ever see a dream running from the law? Well, I did: Margot Robbie plays an injured Dust Bowl-era bank robber hiding out on a ruined farm in “Dreamland.”
(Romulus Entertainment)

The Times is committed to reviewing theatrical film releases during the COVID-19 pandemic. Because moviegoing carries risks during this time, we remind readers to follow health and safety guidelines as outlined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and local health officials.

The new Margot Robbie vehicle “Dreamland” seems to be about legends, the price of escape, maybe unreliable narrators — but ends up not saying much about any of them.

The Dust Bowl drama finds Eugene (Finn Cole) longing to leave behind his small Texas town. He lives with his mother, young sister, Phoebe, and lawman stepfather George (Travis Fimmel of “Vikings”) on their ruined farm. He wastes his days on petty larceny with his apparently Native American pal Jo (Stephen Dinh) and ingesting exciting tales of the rebel heroes of the day: gangsters. Lo and behold, a fugitive bank robber shows up in his family’s barn — Allison Wells, played by Robbie. Injured Allison easily enlists Eugene’s aid; he patches her up and plans to help her escape to Mexico in exchange for $20,000; quite a load of suds to an average Joe. He falls for her, of course, though there’s no reason to believe she actually has $20,000; it’s what far-away-eyed Eugene wants.

Allison seems awfully composed and well-spoken for a fugitive suffering from blood loss who claims to have come from similar downtrodden roots to those of Eugene’s family. She also claims to have never killed anyone, despite her notorious legend. That’s sure to come up later. She’s pretty darn cool as Eugene removes a bullet from her leg without anesthesia. Luckily, she’s an extremely quick healer. And about as perfectly made up and coiffed a gunshot-wounded bank robber as you’ll ever find hiding in an abandoned Dust Bowl barn.

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We dip a toe into her back story, but no more. What little we learn about her is unreliable anyway as the knowing, 20-years-later narration by grown Phoebe (voiced by Lola Kirke) assures us. In fact, perhaps because this is all ostensibly Phoebe’s imagined reconstruction of events, everything that happens between Allison and Eugene has a cursory feel, except for one vivid bonding scene in a hotel bathroom. Moments aren’t deeply investigated, and neither are motivations or emotions. Ultimately, “Dreamland” feels like the story of a rather selfish kid (Eugene) consumed by unrealistic escapism, with little interest in thinking important things through.

That might be from where the film’s title comes — that he’s in Dreamland. He imagines a better life but isn’t awake to the realities of what it takes to get there. Not that his daily struggle is vividly depicted: How Dust Bowl families survived isn’t the film’s concern. When Eugene risks his stepfather’s job on a whim, it doesn’t communicate land, just how disastrous that outcome would be.

Even grown Phoebe’s narration yields little. She says she’s setting the record straight, but she’s talking about things she couldn’t know. And while her assessment of her brother isn’t exactly worshipful, it’s not critical or insightful, either.

We end up wishing waking up from “Dreamland” were harsher.

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'Dreamland'

Rated: R, for some violence, language and sexuality/nudity

Running time: 1 hour, 38 minutes

Playing: Starts Nov. 13, the Lot Fashion Island, Newport Beach, and in limited release where theaters are open; available Nov. 17 on premium VOD and digital


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