Nov 8, 2012


Boy, desert-set adventures just about always end with a grown man being roasted on a spit and then eaten by a bunch of meth heads, don't they?

But seriously folks...

Jack (Aaron Gaffrey) is a war-torn "high desert handyman" who lives in a trailer way out in the middle of a barren landscape. He is haunted by memories of his time spent in the marines during the (Iraq? Afghanistan?) war, in which an explosion kills a fellow marine and tears half his face apart, ripping out an eye in the process. His only companion is Mo (Devin Barry), a skinny white kid cavorting around in Native American garb and looking nothing at all like an actual Native American.

A routine plumbing call has him paying a visit to young mom Ella (Amber Benson), whose pipes are shooting out muddy crappy water. It's right around this point when Jack meets Ella's drug-addicted husband, Herman (Travis Betz), who is thousands of dollars in debt to the local drug king pin Buzz (the absolutely insane Jeremiah Birkett). As you can probably guess, Jack gets involved with all the goings-on of Buzz's drug underworld and things get a little bloody.

If there existed an alternate universe in which Quentin Tarantino and the Coen Brothers collaborated on a script, which was then directed by a Natural Born Killers-era Oliver Stone, Dust Up would come as close to such a wicked threesome as that. A script filled with quirky characters and snappy dialogue is visualized on screen in the frenetic, yellow-tinted style that Stone eventually bequeathed to Tony Scott (RIP). It is a fun, gory romp that contains just as much charm as it does slimy, grimy set pieces.

And the film is funny. Legitimately so, but in that odd, screwball way similar to its cinematic soul mate, The FP. Most of the characters are over-the-top and outlandish, but it all exists in a world where everything is perfectly normal. Broad Dust Up is not. It is a very refined and specific type of humor, and general audiences need not apply. Because while it is often funny, it is also often crude, violent, and even disturbing. Basically, if you can't get behind one character strangling another to death, all the while jerking himself off and ejaculating on the victim's face - all done for both comedic and shock purposes, mind you - perhaps you better check out before you get in too deep. Because you will see things in Dust Up you might not be able to unsee.

Gaffrey as Jack seems to be having the least amount of fun, per his character, being that he is a lonely and isolated figure whose only companion is a half-naked fake Indian. His eye patch and constant lemon face are deceiving in the sense that Gaffrey is actually quite capable of holding his own as far as the humor element goes. Straight-faced humor is often a gamble, because if the humor itself is lame and ineffective, such a performance can come off as boring. But because of the completely diverse group of characters by which he is surrounded, his straight man schtick plays well when coupled with Betz's Herman, who has some of the best lines, or Barry's Mo, whose mere presence never really stops being ridiculous.

Amber Benson plays the sole female lead, and she is saddled with the archetype of the young mom with a dead beat husband who is just trying to hold it all together. Still, she's given some fun lines and is allowed to get into the thick of it when shit really hits the fan. I can't say I'm familiar with any of her work on "Buffy," but her ability for comedy wouldn't surprise any fans of the Joss Whedon favorite.

And Jeremiah Birkett - holy shit. He takes the generic stock character of the drunk king pin and turns him into a devious, misogynistic, sodomizing, bisexual-for-the-fuck-of-it, baby-threatening son of a bitch. He seems to be having a hell of a time playing one, as his performance is near electrifying. At several key moments he is eerily reminiscent of Bernie Mac (RIP), and somewhere I hope Birkett takes that as a compliment, because he definitely should.

As is the case with most low budget cinema, Dust Up isn't entirely perfect. The character work for this type of film is definitely well-done, and you get the sense that anyone on screen can get knocked off at at moment. (One particular sequence, in which one of the more colorful antagonists hops aboard a quad and chases our heroes as they run through the desert, shooting one bullet after another, is effectively suspenseful. The quick editing leaves the viewer unnerved that one of our protags could drop at any moment.) Dust Up, in that regard, works in making you care about its characters, as batshit insane as they may be. But what rubbed me the wrong way was the filmmakers' inclusion of what, to me, seemed like irrelevant defamation of the country's current economic crisis, which has been caused by those "living behind golden gates." And that's not necessarily a bad thing. I'm certainly not telling writer/director Ward Roberts to shut the fuck up and just make a movie. But these condemnations (straight from the maniacal Buzz) come so late in the third act that by the time he gives his speech to his crowd of meth heads, you begin to wonder why it was even included. The idea of "war is bad" literally occurs within the film's first frame, and its effect on Jack are felt throughout the running time. And that's fine. If a morality message had to be included, the war motif more than satisfied the job, and it felt natural and unforced. 

Filmmakers, more than any other artist, have long used cinema to condemn the actions of political systems. George Romero's been doing it for forty years, and he was not the first, nor the last. But in order for your point to have any validity, it needs to be organically weaved through your story. The third act inclusion feels like a late-stage attempt at giving Buzz some motivation and rationale behind his meth business and the Christ-like sway he holds over his meth head followers. It's not like it derails the film at all, as the majority of it is too silly and weird to take seriously, but on the flip side, this little detour into holier-than-though territory makes it stick out all the more.

But that aside, Dust Up accomplishes its number one goal, which is not to preach, but entertain. I can't say that if you have a sense of humor you will laugh and have a good time, because as I previously mentioned, this is not a film for everyone. Unless you find the idea of random sodomy amusing. And don't we all?

Dust Up hits video November 13. 

No comments:

Post a Comment