Fugitive Dreams is less about running from the law, as at a certain point the law no longer cares when it doesn’t touch the societal ideal it tries to enforce. Drifters run from pasts that haunt them, dreams coming in the day just as clear as in the night. Shot like a prestige European war drama in the opening (think The Painted Bird), it turns the forgotten corners of America into the vastness of a scarred battlefield. Mary (April Matthis) and John (Robbie Tann) meet by chance, him running frantically into a bathroom, accidentally stopping her in her tracks as she begins to take a shard of broken bottle glass to her wrist. From there they run, at first chasing each other, then without destination, and finally together where they find unlikely solace.
Based on a play by Caridad Svich, he and Jason Neulander work to bring life into the staging. Scenes in a boxcar feel just like a stage play, high contrast lighting, and sound growing so quiet you can hear the step of a boot, spare for the dull rumble of an audience of only train tracks, rooted by the labor that placed them down. There are so few people here, so little humanity outside those running from a world that has beaten them down, signs of civilization few and far between. Clothing collection boxes and run-down gas stations exist as part of the landscape, so still it’s as if they’ve never been touched by human hands.
It’s rare you catch a star so early in a film, but there’s something about April Matthis that’s going somewhere as a screen actor. Her performance has the fine-tuned control of the acting masters, no outbursts, just steadily going ahead to days she does not yet know with a clenched jaw and resigned gaze. Mary flashes back to a history we are never quite told, as her trauma is a show-don’t-tell piece of the film’s storytelling. She is given a chance to heal and accept the world, wading into the water in the moonlight, leaning her head back, dress floating up around her waist, to become just as much a fixture of the sky as the moon, as droplets of river water glisten as they slide down the coils of her hair. The two characters have a bond tied by class, and the film successfully avoids falling into either white savior, or black women as the caretakers of the world tropes when it allows them to help each other.
A child takes pictures looking directly at a solar eclipse, yet nothing happens to him. Nothing otherworldly is taking place, though it feels like it. Grainy technicolor film shot through the thick glass of an old camera. The last vestiges of childhood are in full color, soft even when cruel, and so are dreams, as dreams are the last chance to escape to this childhood innocence. Where Mary relives her trauma in the stark black and white of today, John remains idealistic, separating a colorful before, when the world was good, from the gray of the now.
Poppies are known to associate with a deep sleep, a sleep as deep as death. They are grown to symbolize those that have died in wars far away, as that is the American fight we choose to honor. There are no fields of poppies to pin to labels for those that are gunned down by the elements, there are no burials with flags and armed salutes for those who go out fighting like rats for scraps. These people live on the edge, bonded less by their gender or racial divides, which may have led them here, but by the class struggle they currently inhabit. We see a cop beat a white boy in a flashback, and this isn’t used to discount the discrimination faced at the hand of a police state, but to show one man’s story of a good person to him wronged by the hand of law.
A wealthy man sits in the forest as the struggling beg for food, for any sort of help. Unlike theirs, his world is in color, and he drinks fine wine, and slices into a steak as those around him bleed. He can smell their origins, is taunting, quietly leering, and offers the two on the ground a deal. If they can guess where he is from, he will give them a single dollar. John guesses New Hampshire, but the wealthy man is from Canada, and even he has not made it to where he is through the American dream. He does not give for empathy, but taunts with a fraction of a shred of hope, and even that is enough to devastate John when he cannot get it. He then offers two hundred dollars, counted in meals that it can pay for, to beat a man beside him. The wealthy crave the pain of the poor, and will revel in it however they can, whether it be making them slash each other to shreds with the belt forced in their hands, or to grasp at a wound found but not healed. It is all a dream, a bad dream for Mary, that John is there, but this dark place isn’t any less than real when dreams are the nearest escape.
John used to tell people he was French, crying out for nights of wine on patios, and crooning songs about love and small birds at windows. He loses himself in a delusion of a better life, outside the brutal Americana in which he is trapped. John says that god has abandoned them, and John is told stories of his own life by strangers he refuses to claim. The landscape is desolate in its beauty, dead fields of dried grasses, plowed with the divots of a thousand retraced footsteps. There are no fields of poppies here, there are no eyes to look back and offer respite. There is a camera, that same old film camera, that shoots the fight of those left behind as poverty porn. The lens is bloodthirsty, and it is hungry to see a world beyond what it knows.
When the world is against them, men revert to childhood, crashing toy planes in stores and stealing candy like a kid filled with the glee of rebellion. Women are expected to mature, to grit their teeth and bear it, and to take care of the little boys losing fistfights with an unseen hand. Two wanderers step into a technicolor screen at last, and the look in their eyes is cleaned, it is a look of wonder, histories washed away by the gentle streaming of a river, and at last there may be hope, there may be joy between the blows of a harsh, uncaring landscape, and a world forgotten.