Saddle up for a slow burn: ‘Western’ captures the soul of that all-but-dead genre it’s named for—and if can you stay awake long enough, you just might find it.
‘Western’ premiered at the fifty-fifth New York Film Festival last Saturday, September 30th. Valeska Grisebach both wrote and directed the film, a foreign-language flick that follows a group of German construction workers installing a hydroelectric plant in rural Bulgaria. Meinhard, a newcomer to the group, befriends the villagers, aggravating the already tenuous relationship between the workers and the locals.
The film’s foremost joy comes from identifying the parallels to its namesake genre. Each interwoven plotline could sustain a western in its own right. Meinhard stands up for the townspeople against his harassment-prone coworkers and a local gangster. He protects their low water supply from thievery. He tames a white horse, tutors a young apprentice, and wins too big a hand at poker. Meinhard, strong and silent, is the archetypal drifter.
Grisebach shows her capability at the helm by juggling all of these nostalgic western tropes. Including multiple plotlines can often make a film feel aimless. Adept editing, however, methodically pieces ‘Western’ together between and within scenes. Most given scenes jump forward, cutting out filler. One moment, Meinhard, alone at night, hears something; the next, gangsters force him into the river. This editing motif gives the film a visual style and helps modulate its pacing.
‘Western’ is beautifully shot in addition to edited. Sweeping cinematography captures the expansive landscape of the Eastern European frontier. Careful attention to lighting enhances dramatic moments. Failing sunlight shines through the trees, dappling Meinhard’s face against the dark woods as he struggles to hear the gangsters approach.
Despite its visual splendor and all around excellent performances from a non-professional cast, ‘Western’ lacks an overall emotional punch. It’s also slow for a two-hour film, though intentionally so. A lack of action and witticisms may understandably turn some away, but ‘Western’ rewards the patient. No, the ending is not particularly intense or explosive; rather we are left with a sharp subversion of the genre.
Grisebach ultimately proves that the transposition of the western is relevant beyond what the superhero genre would have you believe. Thoughtful and charming, ‘Western’ earns its place at the New York Film Festival.
Photo Courtesy of Critics Round Up
‘Western’ comes to theaters in 2018.