The Gift: The Journey of Johnny Cash
A solid documentary about a great musician, with passages of greatness.
It’s bizarre how national cinema can feel so insulated, even if it’s happening only next door. Like learning from my Montreal friends about the miracles of bagged milk, my time at Fantasia gave me more of a look into the films of Canadian director Bruce McDonald, and his frequent collaborator, Nova Scotia’s own Stephen McHattie. The two made genre hit “Pontypool,” but when I heard the other films McDonald had made—all met with big applause from the packed-screening audience on Sunday night—I felt like I had been dropped into another dimension, and also that I had a film blindspot that needed immediate fixing. Nonetheless, I was happy to become an instant fan of both McDonald and McHattie when getting swooped away by “Bruce McDonald’s Dreamland,” a hitman story that is extremely my kind of genre picture, down to the music that inspired it.
Like a Canadian “You Were Never Really Here,” Stephen McHattie plays both a Chet Baker-inspired trumpeter and also a hitman named Johnny, the two lives converging in twisty, fascinating plot that involves Johnny trying to rescue young sex traffic victims from a massive, gauche wedding that the trumpet player is set to perform at. Unpredictable and lovely from start to finish, it's a gripping mini-odyssey that never loses its sense of humor, and culminates in a big action scene built around a haunting rendition of Eurythmics' “I Saved the World Today,” which McHattie croons with an incredible tenderness.
Fitting, then, that the movie plays like a Chet Baker ballad about a hitman, moving through its story at a pace that keeps the notes in tact, and feels to be very select with when it wants to either make a point, or just sit back and play it cool. There are dreamy flourishes, sure, like a larger-than-usual performance from Henry Rollins as a sex trafficker named Hercules, a bombastic Juliette Lewis as a wedding organizer, and a literal vampire groom played by Tómas Lemarquis. But as much as the story is called “Dreamland,” it’s much more about dream logic, where a grounded narrative unfolds with details that simply are not questioned. One of the film’s most beguiling features is that it has a cohesive vision that is sincere to all of its parts, piling on the literal and metaphorical and painting a bizarre world in the process.
The script by Tony Burgess and Patrick Whistler is in fact, a lot like “You Were Never Really Here,” but McDonald never makes it too maudlin, and punches up the darkness of the tale of a melancholy hero with humor, coincidences, and general absurdities—obtaining a cut-off pinky is a running joke, but also one of its reoccurring gritty visuals. Any time the movie has McHattie playing opposite himself the story is particularly great, and it’s the kind of movie that can go darker with its disturbing content because it is so funny, and vice versa.
Worthy of a massive audience outside of Canada, this movie is one hell of a vehicle for McHattie, whose performance is just as broken as those of Joaquin Phoenix in Lynne Ramsay’s twice aforementioned movie, or even Liam Neeson in the ways he’s played the similar role. McHattie (in both roles) imbues the movie with his own cool, displaying a great deal of wisdom and soul in his collected line-reading and moments of reflection. Along with McDonald’s soundscape, it all makes for an exhilarating take on the hitman movie, where violence is not a cynical reliance but a poetic expression in the larger narrative scope, and where style jazzes up a log-line that only sounds like you’ve seen it before.
The Fantasia audience got to celebrate McHattie with a very special screening of a film from the actor’s career—“Look What’s Happened to Rosemary’s Baby,” a 1976 TV movie sequel to the Roman Polanski horror classic, in which Patty Duke stars as the Mia Farrow character, and unforgettable sassy character actor Ruth Gordon is a curmudgeonly Satanist grandmother, natch. The film was notably directed by Sam O’Steen, who previously edited “The Graduate.” And McHattie starred in this movie as Rosemary’s baby Adrien, having been taken away from his mother early into the story and raised by his aunt. Presented on film by a print from Fantasia co-director Mitch Davis, it’s not one that many have seen—including McHattie, who stated to the attendees that he had never seen the film in full until that night.
Connoisseurs of bad movies will likely find this misconceived project a worthwhile hunt, especially given its strange period details (imagining Adrien as a ‘60s hippie rocker despite the ‘70s setting) and the manner in which the story pushes a plot along through sequences that can generously be called anti-horror. In one part, Duke is taken out of the story early, as she gets on a bus, and the doors close before her little devil boy (a toddler at the time) can get on with her. But then, the bus drives away, and she can’t get off! Duke runs to the back of the bus window and bangs on it, screaming for her baby, and finally goes to the driver to make them stop the bus—only to realize … there is no driver!
Such goofs in the story come sporadically, like anytime Gordon is on-screen and getting sassy about Adrien’s Satanic situation like a character dropped in from a “Rosemary’s Baby” parody. McHattie delivers a striking emotional performance in a junky picture, given fleeting moments to show a wounded psyche within the story’s absurd plot—if any actor could make it visceral that would feel truly conflicted about being a vessel for the devil, I now understand that it would be McHattie.
Speaking about the film after, McHattie painted an image of this project coming together by people who knew exactly what it was, including himself, who laughed when asked if he had to audition for the part.
And when some inquired about how he felt about “Look What’s Happened to Rosemary’s Baby” within the scope of his career, McHattie stated with a wink and a smile, “It’s amazing what you can survive.”
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