Saturday 19 April 2014

Dust of War (2013)

Director: Andrew Kightlinger
Stars: Tony Todd, Steven Luke, Bates Wilder, Jordan McFadden, Gary Graham and Doug Jones
This film was an official selection at the 10th annual International Horror & Sci-Fi Film Festival in Phoenix in 2014. Here's an index to my reviews of 2014 films.
I left Dust of War with painfully mixed feelings, most of which stemmed from the script. It was written by director Andrew Kightlinger from a story by Adam Emerson and Steven Luke, credited here as Luke Schuetzle to hide that he's also the leading man. This script is one of the best things about the movie, because it continually uses imagination to successfully avoid clichés and elevate a clearly low budget production beyond the norm. Unfortunately, the very same script is also one of the worst things about the movie, because at the few points where it doesn't succeed in avoiding clichés, it revels in them so gleefully that I wanted to cringe. To suggest that these are incredibly frustrating moments would be to understate the case. Watching the film felt like walking up an isolated mountain with a refreshing view that gradually captivates us with its uniqueness, only to turn a corner and be slapped in the face with a McDonalds, a WalMart and a Starbucks together like the lowest common denominator of wet fish.

The introduction sets the scene like a blitzkrieg, explaining that an alien invasion has been and gone, leaving the world in a sort of post-apocalyptic state. An evil despot has arisen in the dust left behind by the war, Gen Chizum by name, but he's countered by a mysterious child growing up as a harbinger of peace. The impression is that the battle of good and evil between them holds the fate of the world in the balance and we focus in on this battle in microcosm as two bounty hunters search for her in the general's stronghold. I particularly liked the little picture here. This is no sweeping epic of army versus army, it's a character driven tale of two wills against one, with a few interesting supporting characters. We only get the slightest glimpse of the aliens, all wrapped up in red armour, masks and attitude. This isn't about them, so we don't need countless man years of CGI; this worthwhile indie picture unfolds in the echo of that imaginary blockbuster's drift through the second run theatres into online streaming.

It's a refreshing ride for a while, though the size of Chizum's stronghold unfortunately highlights the lack of budget. The general is a huge man with a bald head and knotted beard, someone brutal but controlled enough to believably rise to this sort of position. He looks like he's going to be a cliché on legs, WWE's candidate for president, but he successfully avoids a hinted descent to the level of a live action action figure to remain a refreshing villain throughout. Bates Wilder is the actor, who I haven't seen play a part this substantial before; previously I've only caught him in smaller roles in top notch but very different films like Shutter Island and Hachi: A Dog's Tale. He's made a number of films since his first part as Loud Mouth Cop in Mystic River, but it's his stage background that has surely lent the structure to build character roles like this one. I hope the next time I see him on screen, it'll be in a lead role or, at least, one with enough time for him to flesh out his character the way he clearly can.
If Wilder is refreshing as the villain, Steven Luke is a revelation as the hero. He's Abel, a quiet, strong, meaningful leader who doesn't seem to want to lead. We soon find that he's been there, done that, as a legendary soldier who led a famous attack against the alien invaders, but he has no need of dwelling on past glories, whether he won or lost. Just as Wilder played a very believable despot, Luke is just as believable as his foil. What impressed me was how he does this: not through rippling muscles or cool dialogue but by inspiration, something tough to show effectively through the abstraction of a screen. He isn't the buff action hero stereotype and he doesn't have superstar looks; what he has is charisma that makes men want to follow him. As he rescues his partner and the girl they've been seeking from Chizum's brig, he gets an AWOL soldier as a bonus and it's this comic relief character who sets the stage hint. 'You're him?' he asks. 'You're supposed to be dead.' Luke lives up to awe by shrugging it off.
And so the chase begins, through the prairies of South Dakota. Abel and his partner, Tom Dixie, lead the way, with Ellie, the girl who might just save the world, initially as a prisoner but soon a companion, and Klamp, the AWOL soldier. They get a decent start but Gen Chizum is soon hot on their trail, aided by the talents of a Native American tracker called Dark Horse. Also worthy of mention in the general's crew is Giger, his torturer. All these are characters, not just in the movie but also in the world that they occupy; none would ever fade into the background, except perhaps Ellie who uses that approach as a defence mechanism. None are so overt that they become stereotypes; they feel more like stereotypes carefully adjusted to not feel like stereotypes, enhanced in every instance by solid performances. The script may throw obstacles in their way, starting with a minefield, but even as Kightlinger ratchets up the tension, it's always his characters who we watch. They're easily Dust of War's biggest success.
If Abel is the one we find ourselves naturally following, it's Dixie who most effectively steals attention. Gary Graham's is surely the most recognisable face after those of Tony Todd and Doug Jones, after his long run as Det Matthew Sikes in the Alien Nation TV show and succeeding movies. He's a quarter of a century older here than he was starting out there, having grown into a vague cross between Fred Ward and Billy Bob Thornton. He's an endearing sidekick because he's never just a sidekick, he's a capable lead who just happens to follow because he's found a man worthy of following. While Ellie is surely the character with the most expected story arc, it's Klamp who ends up with that instead. He's a waste of space early on, but the script keeps finding reasons for him to be in it and he grows well to meet them. I don't know if Hank Ostendorf as Klamp does a better job than Jordan McFadden as Ellie or whether his character just has more to do. Ellie's promise sadly becomes an afterthought, which diminishes her.
On the chasing side, David Midthunder is note perfect as Dark Horse, mixing the inevitable talent of his role as tracker with an agreeably dry humour, while Tristran Barnard plays Giger more overtly. The name suggests dark Austrian art, but he's an English-educated Irishman portraying a rather Spanish character, an unholy coupling of twisted mediaeval inquisitor with silent era swashbuckler. If we ever need Zorro to go undercover in the Spanish Inquisition, he'd surely feel exactly like Giger. I wonder if there should have been another notable character in Chizum's party to balance the two sides. I can't remember who else was chasing, but nobody else was memorable enough to make my notes and the only one I can recall is a disposable one quickly lost to a pressure mine. It could be argued that three notable characters chasing four leaves subconscious hints as to how things will play out, but maybe I just didn't buy into others being notable characters.
And that leaves the major names to discover on the road, populating a deceptively calm oasis in the desert. Tony Todd, who is top credited here above all the real leads, does add something to the story, unlike many of his guest appearances nowadays; for every characterful contribution like The Graves, there's a wasted one like Kill Her, Not Me. Todd is more versatile than most realise (just see The Man from Earth for a completely different side of him) and he brings an agreeable depth to this role. I just wanted more of Crispus because I felt he had more to bring. Doug Jones, however, is exactly right as Jebediah Strumm; while he doesn't actually get much screen time, it resonates gloriously so that he's one of the most memorable things about the film. I'm finding that that happens a lot with Jones. Ever quirky, we meet him carrying dead snakes and he later leads a tea party for children at a crucial point in the story. He's clearly not all there but he has talents beyond the obvious. How could we not like?
Unfortunately the same frustratingly doesn't go for the film as a whole. It's a highly promising picture with an enticing premise, a strong vision and a thoughtful use of a low budget. It has a great lead, well written supporting characters and a pair of impressive names guesting late in the picture. Yet its flaws cannot be ignored. Painfully clichéd scenes in an original movie grate all the more because they stand out; If I'd seen these in a less promising film, I wouldn't care because my expectations wouldn't be high, but here they spoil. The ending is a vague afterthought, as if Kightlinger wrapped the picture then remembered he had a prophecy to explain. In fact, the pace is off a little throughout; it's a slow film with a quiet score ('Mad Max bitchslapping Terrence Malick', says Kightlinger), but it slows more, even when we hit a fight/chase scene shot surprisingly close. All in all, it aims to be a great sci-fi flick and it does well for most of the film. It's so sad to highlight that the other bits are cringeworthy.

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