Tanner Matthews’ The American Dreamless is an exciting film to watch but requires a little work to follow. I’d describe it as a coffee table photography book of America complete with an addiction through-line.
We open with two young men, Dylan (Colin Parker Stephens) and Phoenix (Jeremy Staple), sitting on a couch in the middle of a vast plain in the center of nowhere. I’m assuming it’s Kansas, as a map of the state is plastered on Dylan’s shirt. Dylan is a drug addict, and Phoenix is blind.
While Dylan is content languishing away his days on the couch, Phoenix is anxious to get out of town and “see” America. He hands Dylan a map to a buried treasure of cash and wants to hitchhike across the country to find it. Four years later, Dylan is still on that couch and dreams of what life would have been like if he had followed Phoenix on his adventure.
It’s here that the movie turns into an art piece thanks to cinematographer Nick Ramsey. Dylan is now alone, making an occasional call to his dealer. He hops on an abandoned train boxcar and dreams. He dreams about traveling the country with Phoenix. He dreams of conversations about life and love. He dreams about a young woman, Des (Maggie Mae Cleary), who leads them on their cross-country adventure.
“He hands Dylan a map to a buried treasure of cash and wants to hitchhike across the country to find it.”
The American Dreamless is a beautiful film to take in. Every shot is interesting to look at, from America’s vast, open vistas to its intimate close-up moments with our three leads in a confined boxcar. Director Matthews boasts that it’s the first movie to be shot in all fifty states, and much of it comes from traveling on a train. It’s quite a feat, but at the same time, I couldn’t identify half of the states as presented. Adding to its visual grandeur is a folk music soundtrack that serves as the perfect complement to the visuals.
This is a film that I could see myself playing on my big-screen television in the background as I work my way down the “honey-do” list. It’s also a movie I’d play if I wanted to relax and think about the places I have yet to visit in my life or just bask in the glory that is the United States of America.
My main frustration is that its story is as loose as it is. If you’re looking for a traditional narrative, you will not find it here. What you will find is an exploration of America from the back of a train, juxtaposed against Dylan’s struggle with drugs. It’s not that he’s dug far deep into this addiction, but drugs are his way of passing the time in solitude with no place to go except that couch in the middle of nowhere. Eventually, he has to face where his life is today and make a final decision about where he wants to end up.
In the end, The American Dreamless is an art piece and not everyone’s cup of tea. It looks impressive but also meanders in its story of finding purpose, oneself, and a world outside one’s comfort level.
"…a beautiful film to take in. Every shot is interesting to look at..."