out of ****
Milcho Manchevski’s Dust is a gloriously uneven, deliriously delightful film about the emergence of the Old West mentality into contemporary times. At least, I think that’s what it’s about: It is so convoluted and choppy that it doesn’t even pretend to make a lick of sense, but then, neither did the West itself, a place where men were driven by the untamed spirit of the land to do inexplicable, brutal things to one another. Manchevski, no stranger to intricate storylines (his brilliant Before the Rain was hailed as the European Pulp Fiction for its multiple, interwoven continuities), has created one here so elaborately visionary that it is nearly too much for him to contain, but his stirring visuals and brilliant juxtaposition of conflicting images enables him to keep up with himself.
The film tells three intersecting stories from two distinctly different eras. On the outer ring, we have Edge (Adrian Lester), a small-time burglar living in present-day Manhattan who robs the home of 93-year old Angela (Rosemary Murphy) in hope that he will find enough money to pay back debts he owes the mob. Things take an interesting turn when Angela turns out to be more feisty and resourceful than the average elderly woman: She promptly breaks Edge’s nose and holds him at gunpoint. At this point, she forces him to listen to the story of her life, and she keeps him interested by promising a fortune of gold if he sticks around for the tale’s end. This is enough incentive to keep around anyone who owes the mob money; it helps that Edge is really a decent fellow who has been forced into crime against his will. Throughout the film, a mother-son relationship will develop between Edge and Angela; he maintains that he only wants the gold, but he makes a series of critical choices throughout that reveal his growing affection for the woman.
Angela’s story concerns American gunslinger Luke (David Wenham), an archetypal cowboy living during the turn of the twentieth century. Most of the film occupies his tale. To Luke’s chagrin, he has survived the Old West, watched civilization tame it, and now restlessly searches the earth to find a place that matches the feral, frontier spirit that shaped his identity. After a few fleeting scenes that establish him as a deadly force of nature, Luke (who is not without self-deprecating humor—he carries a six-shooter with the words “The Gospel According to Luke” inscribed on its handle) finds what he is looking for in the Republic of Macedonia, where he casts his lot with Turkish rebels who battle the Christian government. He is pursued by his younger brother Elijah (Joseph Fiennes), a religious fanatic who has joined the Ottoman government and has an unspoken grudge with his brother. Throughout the course of the film, the brothers will meet and nearly kill each other several times, suggesting that there is bad blood between them that helped perpetuate Luke’s flight from America.
Eventually, we get that story too, in another flashback arch about the brothers, when they were younger and living in the American West. Manchevski cleverly sets these scenes apart from the Macedonian sequences by shooting them in black and white; otherwise, it would be difficult to tell exactly when these scenes take place, and where (we’ve known since the Spaghetti Western that the West and the East are remarkably similar scenically). It is only these moments that develop Luke and Elijah as three-dimensional characters and establish exactly why they are fighting on different sides in the Ottoman rebellion. These scenes are fleeting, but they are also crucial because they clearly outline the brothers’ hatred for one another. I won’t give much away here, but let’s just say that in the spirit of the great Western archetypes, there’s a woman involved.
I leave it to you to see how all of these various threads from different eras all tie together, but Manchevski (who also wrote the screenplay) weaves through the labyrinth in a way that is always compelling, even if it doesn’t make much sense. Most characterizations are so vague that viewers will have to fill in the gaps; the San Francisco sequences seem like they belong to an entirely different movie, and the chief scenes in Macedonia never take the time to develop persuasive characters or motives from the supporting cast. The heart of the picture lies in the black-and-white sequences, which essentially boil the century-long tale down to the anger felt between the two brothers, which, even nearly one hundred years later and across two continents, still resonates with pain and betrayal as it leaks onto Angela and Edge’s storyline. But the film takes a long, articulate road to the revelations found in these flashbacks; it suggests far more than it reveals before it finally unites all the plot threads, and even then, we’re not sure exactly how they all fit.
Yet these frustrations with the story make the film fascinating rather than distracting. I think this is because Manchevski seems so confident in his storytelling abilities that we trust him even when we don’t understand him. There is never a dull or belabored moment here—every scene advances whatever metaphorical point Manchevski is making, and it does so with outstanding visuals and terrific, subtle performances from the four leads (the two brothers in the past, Edge and Angela in the present).
What is the point? I think the clue is found in Manchevski’s juxtaposition of images and sounds from various eras and cultures. They often run together, and it’s absorbing (and surprising) how smugly they blend. An example: During a decisive showdown between Luke and Elijah, the two struggle and shoot at one another until they find themselves in a stalemate—they stand inches apart with their guns literally pushed into each other’s faces. The scene proceeds as any such western showdown would, with pensive, twitching close-ups as each brother silently deliberates his next move. But then, out of nowhere, the soundtrack turns into angry, explicit gangsta rap, which adds entirely new dimensions to the proceedings. The rhythm of the contemporary music is stunningly appropriate in this ancient setting, and as we watch this paradox work itself out in front of us, Manchevski jumps back to the present, to reveal that it is music coming from outside the window where Edge and Angela chat. Edge shuts the window and laments, “I hate that music!”
But the ultimate punch-line isn’t the crucial factor here. What’s curious is Manchevski’s revelation that the rap music works seamlessly in the Western context. For as much as Luke feels he must travel the earth to find another place as untamed as the Old West, Manchevski’s fusion of old and new reveals that America is still as untamed and as frigid as it ever was. Folk songs have simply been replaced with rap, and gunslinger outlaws are now desperate burglars from the hood. The beat is different, of course, but the song has always remained the same.
But Manchevski’s theme isn’t so one-noted that I can sum it up with one example. Though Luke is sparse, he is an increasingly complex character the more he moves about the Ottoman Empire and encounters various villagers and soldiers. For that matter, so are Elijah and Edge, who emit with decency even as they descend farther into revenge and greed, respectively. Both timelines feature a hunt for gold and acts of unspeakable violence to other human beings, and yes, there is the inevitable Western showdown where guns blaze and the soundtrack soars. But Manchevski cushions these moments with sincere and moving acts of decency from these hard-boiled characters. He doesn’t stop to wonder why they periodically make the right choices, but I don’t think he has to: His point is that for all of our depravity and selfishness, even the worst of men can be compelled to do the right thing simply for the sake of humanity. The film eventually reaches a point when all three men must make critical choices; on one hand, they can preserve themselves, on the other, they can put themselves in danger to help someone else. You might be surprised to see which character chooses which option, and the actors are never anything less than convincing as their characters shift and deviate.
At 124 minutes, the film seems shorter than it is, because it moves so quickly and captivates us so totally. It helps that it is gorgeous to look at, with Barry Ackroyd’s stark cinematography constantly reminding us that this is western, despite its various global settings. As a Macedonian himself, Manchevski must have seen a strong connection between the barbaric wars of his country and the struggles against civilization in the Old West. That Luke and Elijah, two decidedly Western characters, fit so well in this Eastern struggle confirms the director’s theory, and even as Manchevski delivers a strong cultural sense of his own country’s revolution, the archetypes and images grounded in the Western maintain its sense of familiarity for American viewers. Never does the film seem foreign or its characters displaced. In Manchevski’s universe, the Wild West spans all time and space.
The final scene is likely to cause a mess of a headache for anyone who tries to take it literally. It suggests that every plot point we’ve thus far seen in the various narratives is utterly pointless, except as one gigantic metaphor pointing to the theme that it represents. After two viewings of Dust, I still can’t quite figure out how much of what we see is real, or if it really all a delusion. But if it is a delusion, whose is it, and what does this mean for the characters with whom we have spent the last two hours? Manchevski doesn’t say, and this is likely to outrage some viewers who feel like the film has been wasting their time. I personally found it quite compelling, but you’ve been warned.
The final clue to deciphering (and appreciating) the film, I think, is buried in the title. Everywhere we go, whatever we do, we kick up dust in the desert of life. Certain ripples of our action remain, and they blow from era to era, leaving impacts that we could scarcely imagine. The dust therefore unites us: Inside, none of us are very different—we are all prideful, and arrogant, and cruel, and, potentially, inspirational and kind. Thus, the very dust that engulfs us—the stuff that will return to when we die—ultimately confirms our existence and sets us free. So it’s alright that the past, the present, and the future all blend together and are seemingly incapable of being separated. It’s all made of the same dust, after all. It’s all us.
David Wenham: Luke
Joseph Fiennes: Elijah
Adrian Lester: Edge
Rosemary Murphy: Angela
Anne Brochet: Lilith
Vera Farmiga: Amy
Lionsgate presents a Fandango production. Written and directed by Milcho Manchevski. Rated R, for graphic violence, language, and sexuality. Running time: 124 minutes. Original United States theatrical release date: August 22, 2003.