Sunday 16 February 2014

Children of the Dust (2014)

Director: Chris Wilembrecht
Stars: Will Hightower, Carrie Fee, Anne Gentry, Mina Mirkhah and Kat Bingham

I watched Children of the Dust last month in an incomplete state and it still stayed with me. Watching it afresh with only the opening bumpers still missing, I can see why. While the story's progression is clear enough, the real story comes from the atmosphere that it builds. There are a lot of hallucinatory visuals here, spawned from dreams, narcotics and conditioning that help us to realise that there's always more than one way to see anything. The sound follows the visuals on those little trips, which arrive in waves to unsettle us before jarring back crisply into a reality that slides from the sacred to the profane. All this cinematic trickery makes Children of the Dust an infectious, contagious piece, which is emphasised still further by the superb third act, which is a real treat, combining stunning composition of frame with the perfect choice of score. The imagery that it accompanies is suitably powerful too, something of a visual poem or dark litany, appropriately given the religious focus of the piece.

When those missing bumpers are added in, we'll see that this long short is a creation of Octopus Army and Valor Media rather than Cool Wave Pictures, but many of the names involved, both on screen and off, are those we've seen many times before in the latter's films. Carrie Fee is a regular there, leading films like Sex and Violence and The Greatest Lie Ever Told, while Anne Gentry and Kat Bingham were both memorable in Dust Jacket. The directors of each of those films also lent their assistance here. Ken Miller, who wrote and directed Dust Jacket, co-produced here and served as assistant director. Charles Peterson, director and co-writer of Sex and Violence, co-edited this short and handled the crane work. Cody Everett, who wrote and directed The Greatest Lie Ever Told, provided voice work here. Even Chris Wilembrecht, the main name behind Children of the Dust as its writer and director, amongst a slew of other roles, co-produced Dust Jacket and edited The Greatest Lie Ever Told.

One of the new names to this group of creative jacks of all trades is the lead actor, Will Hightower, who I've only seen before in App of Time. He certainly landed an interesting role in young and naive Vincent, the lead character and main focus of this film but, depending on how we read it, he may actually be its most inconsequential character. I'm wondering if he's really the walking, talking MacGuffin because all the other characters care what happens to him, for one reason or another, but that's the main reason that he's here. He has no real presence of his own; the nearest he gets to one is to dream it, the future he wants being to hook up with his favourite waitress at the A Touch of European Café. She apparently isn't averse to the idea either, once we meet her and watch them interact, but obviously nothing has happened yet. Perhaps the main reason for this is that Vincent has an overbearing mother with strong religious beliefs that she uses as a weapon to batter him with.
Mum is Anne Gentry, who shows us her scary side here, even while remaining polite. She's not the sort of mother any of us would want and fear of her shows in Vincent's few actions and the notable absence of the rest. She does seem to want the best for him, her approach clearly mirrored in the talk radio chat we hear early on that speaks to training children to avoid the sinful world, which she describes as 'pure trash'. He gives in to her at every step but finds his escape at the café and his waitress, played by Kat Bingham, who bizarrely may actually do more here in a crucial supporting slot than she did as the lead in Dust Jacket. Unfortunately for Vincent, escaping to the café also means entering into the sinful world, for which he is woefully unprepared, as he discovers when his eyes stray up Carrie Fee's short skirt. Fee may be the most fearless actress working in the valley today, though I'm not sure whether that's better highlighted in Sex and Violence or The Greatest Lie Ever Told. She always keeps us on our toes.

Here she's Christine, Temptation with a capital T, perhaps the Devil herself, and Vincent is putty in her hands from moment one. Having lived with one dominant woman all his life, he knows exactly what to do with another: anything she wants. Everything unravels from there, spectacularly for twenty minutes. How it does so is open to interpretation. Christine may just be an opportunitistic girl, seducing Vincent just for kicks because she can see how defenceless he is. The first thing she does that isn't to him is to vomit out of his bedroom window; it just wouldn't be a Carrie Fee movie without at least one bodily fluid making an appearance. However, the film was built from a religious framework and that continues as Christine teases Vincent about his odds of going to Heaven or Hell, so perhaps she's something more, like a demon or a succubus; perhaps Vincent merely visualises her that way because he's conditioned to do so. These twin readings continue, enhanced by pharmaceuticals and laced with the sacrilegious.

The film's biggest achievement is the third act, but that may prove to be its biggest problem too, as it's a step above everything else. Had Children of the Dust ended at the end of part two, with Christine and her sister, played by an even more confident Mina Mirkhah, sharing Vincent's mother's bed, under one of the film's huge and outrageously gaudy religious paintings, it would have been a decent short with a controversial edge. However it continues on with a vengeance. 'Hey, it's time,' mutters Mirkhah and she isn't kidding. The third act is far more than a decent film, from its startling opening visual, a 45 second sustained long shot with human beings a tiny detail against the hills. The ominous clouds are matched by the ominous chords of the Raveonettes, for whose blissfully distorted song, Belly of the Beast, this could serve as a music video. Everything here is magnificent: the editing, the dream flashbacks, the imagery, the lighting, the gorgeous shot through the flames. It's masterful stuff.
That's a huge deal, but in good and bad ways. It leaves us breathless and wanting more, which is every film's dream, after all. I would dearly love to see a full feature that plays like this masterful third act. It's open enough to easily allow it and Mirkhah and Fee are more than capable. But, when the euphoria dies down, we remember how we got there and the first two acts, as strong as they are and as much as they could stand on their own, can't compete when followed by something with this power. Of course, they're required to allow the picture to build, to underline how this could all come about, but they're balanced strangely: the first act runs fifteen minutes, while the other two are only five each. Looking back during the end credits, it feels like twenty minutes of setup for a powerful finalé, which is unfair because that's not how it felt as it unfolded. There's much to appreciate in the first two acts but they're not anchored anywhere near as well as the third.

As the title might suggest, Children of the Dust is a cynical piece; it isn't afraid to let us sympathise with the good guy but it won't let us get behind him. It's almost Aryan in its philosophy that the strong must always dominate the weak, but it's never political, always religious. The film allies itself firmly with Fee's character, so that it's seducing us as she seduces Vincent. The religious framework forces us to consider it in those terms, especially with the symbolism that we're treated to during the finalé. But, if this is a warning to keep us from the pit, it's phrased in an interesting way. It tells us that in training Vincent so strictly to avoid temptation, his mother left him wide open to the world, not protected from it. Everyone in his life manipulated him, with good intentions or bad, with the one ironic exception of his dream girl, who chose not to. As women drive everything here, we could easily read Christine as Eve as much as the serpent on the poster and Kat Bingham's waitress as the Virgin Mary. Who would we fall for?

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