Margot Robbie is the rare talent who works both as a big movie star and a serious actress. Part of what made her turn in I, Tonya so gripping was her ability to switch from a big performance to a small one in a matter of seconds. That same talent is on display here in Mile Joris-Peyrafitte’s Dust Bowl drama Dreamland. Robbie plays Alison Wells, one half of a bank robbing duo in the 1930s a la Bonnie and Clyde. But the story starts with her fall rather than her ascension, after the death of her partner, and that’s partially because it isn’t really her story.
We’re introduced to Alison through the young Eugene Evans (Finn Cole), as he hears of her crimes on the radio before discovering her in her barn, afflicted with a bullet wound in her leg. Naturally, he takes to her, or at least idealizes her in such a way that her status as a fugitive comes second to her charm and beauty. It’s fun watching Alison manipulate Eugene. The script rarely clues us in on what she’s actually feeling, letting Robbie plunge into a really delicious realm of ambiguity.
Complicating matters, Eugene’s father George (Travis Fimmel) is part of the small town’s police force, putting a dark shadow on the forced secrecy of Eugene’s protection of, let alone affection for, a wanted criminal. Nicholaas Zwart’s script knows where all the dramatic beats need to go in this 90-minute story, even if his dialogue isn’t always on the mark. The performances across the ensemble are overall solid, but only Robbie is able to sell some of the script’s more difficult to swallow lines with any form of panache. The story itself takes its time, with the stakes laid out early on and then left alone to marinate for a little too long before Eugene and Alison start taking matters into their own hands. That said, the third act sneaks up on you, and the story, as simple as it is, evolves into something worth caring about before the fates of these characters is decided.
The film’s coming-of-age themes don’t go farther than skin deep, but being executed through a western crime saga, they don’t really need to for the story to resonate. Eugene’s arc is simple: he has to discover who he is as he learns that the world isn’t so black and white. However, the lack of resolve to dig further into what this journey means for Eugene distinguishes Dreamland as a merely good film, not a great one.
Even so, Joris-Peyrafitte operates like a great director. His view of the Dust Bowl, as well as that of cinematographer Lyle Vincent, is truly breathtaking. From the gorgeous vistas to the frightening reality of oncoming storms—which are realized via very convincing, engrossing visual effects, I might add—Dreamland uses its desert location for all its worth. But the camera is wielded smartly throughout the more intimate scenes as well, with framing that draws the eye during long takes of characters speaking, or even sometimes not saying much at all.
And that’s largely where the film’s power comes from. Its aspects that make this story necessary to be told on film help make up for what the writing and themes lack. Dreamland is so economical and discreetly grandiose that it looks like it had a bigger budget than it probably did. While certainly not everything, there is a good yarn here. The film as a whole may not carry the subtle layers an actress like Robbie can bring to an infectious character like Alison, but it’s certainly better for having her there to do so. As much of a mixed bag as Dreamland can be, by the end, it’s hard not to get swept up in its dramatic storm.