Seven years after sharing the Venice Golden Lion for his debut feature, “Before the Rain,” Macedonian auteur Milcho Manchevski is back with “Dust,” his highly problematic sophomore effort. Essentially a Euro Western, spectacularly lensed in Macedonia, film borrows freely and unwisely from superior predecessors in the genre, while struggling to explore interesting themes involving the personal legacy we hand down to our descendants. Pic’s main problem in positioning itself commercially is that it straddles the genres: It’s too arty to cut it as a violent action pic and too gore-spattered to appeal to the arthouse crowd. Negative critical reaction also is likely.
Opening scenes unfold in present-day New York in the apartment of the aged Angela (Rosemary Murphy), who surprises a burglar, Edge (Adrian Lester). Angela gets the drop on the intruder and, at gunpoint, insists on telling him the story, not of her life, but of the lives of her father and uncle. This awkward premise isn’t made more believable by the fact that bad boy Edge instantly warms to the old gal’s storytelling, to the extent that when she’s taken ill he rushes her to the hospital, staying by her bedside until the story is finished.
A hundred years earlier, in the Old West, Luke (David Wenham), “the fastest gun west of the Pecos” as Angela describes him, without a hint of irony, takes his virginal kid brother, Elijah (Joseph Fiennes), to a brothel where both are smitten with comely hooker Lilith (Anne Brochet). In short order, Elijah and Lilith are married, and the embittered Luke (“Nobody laughed at Luke twice,” we’re told) high-tails it for fresh pastures.
Luke winds up in Macedonia, where freedom fighters battle against the Turkish troops occupying the country and 200 bandit gangs create bloody havoc across the spectacular landscape.
Brushing aside the language barrier, Luke soon is a gang member and dallying with local girl Neda (Nikolina Kujaca). However, retribution, in the form of his own brother, is on the horizon.
Though Manchevski claims to have been influenced by spaghetti Westerns, the clear influences on “Dust” are two very different 1969 oaters, “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” and “The Wild Bunch.” From the former comes the scenes of the two men who leave America for a new and dangerous country, from the latter numerous scenes of blood-spattered carnage — substitute Turks for Mexicans and the similarities are all too clear. However, Manchevski fails to tap into either the humor and charm of “Butch” or the nobility and grim beauty of “Bunch.” “Dust” simply looks derivative.
There’s also a mean-spirited feel to the film, which, seen in the context of contemporary conflicts in the Balkans, hardly provides a positive message about this war-torn part of the world.
Most surprising, however, is that the director makes little of what he claims to be his main theme — the legacy of personal history. This modern story never begins to work dramatically.
Manchevski stages the action scenes, which consist mostly of bloody gun battles, with efficiency, though animal-loving audience members may not appreciate the numerous scenes in which sheep are seen apparently in their death throes after being hit by wayward bullets.
Barry Ackroyd’s burnished photography is often beautiful, and the Macedonian locations have been well selected. Kiril Dzajkovski’s full-blooded music score functions well as a rousing counterpoint to the action, though the interpolation of some songs from the present, including a strident rap number, over action unfolding a century ago is as jarring as similar moments in “A Knight’s Tale.”
While Fiennes hardly registers as the “good” brother, Aussie thesp Wenham brings considerable charisma, and a full-on Southern accent, to the reckless Luke. It’s a pity the screenplay doesn’t allow him more opportunities, because he’s the best thing the film has going for it. In the modern story, Lester and Murphy are as effective as possible in ill-conceived roles.