Director Andrew Kightlinger has suggested that his film Dust of War is something on the order of “Mad Max meets Terrence Malick”, and if that was what he had in mind, he can call it a success. It doesn’t disappoint as an action-filled post-apocalyptic adventure following a hero along a rugged quest in the wastelands of the aftermath, but—as in a Malick film—our hero is a strong, silent type, and the film is shot with appropriate grandeur against the stark, raw beauty of western South Dakota. Unlike Malick—whose first feature in 1973 was titled “Badlands”—Kightlinger actually did shoot in the Badlands, as well as in Pierre and Wall, South Dakota. Stunning cinematography by Director of Photography Peter Wigand plays a major role in Dust of War’s visual storytelling; it takes its time, showcasing the inhospitable splendor of the rolling open terrain. In particular, Wigand’s handheld camera work accents the dark edginess of the movie, making fine use of a setting that plays an important role in revealing the intrigue.
The film’s producing trio—Luke Schuetzle, Adam Emerson, and Kightlinger (who together came up with the story for Dust of War)—come into Dust of War on the heels of a successful festival run for two award-winning shorts, Paper People and You Don’t Know Bertha Constantine, and with Dust of War—their first feature—we’re treated to the same attention to detail that made the shorts such favorites.
Dust of war opens on a wispy prairie landscape, and a voiceover by the protagonist Abel (Steven Luke) sets up the story and its ironic premise:
For centuries, the human race looked to the stars, searching the heavens for signs of life, wondering if we were alone. Then one day, the stars fell from the sky in swords of fire, and an alien civilization invaded Earth, bringing humanity to its bloody knees…
He continues, telling us that the unconquered lands have filled with tyrants and that a ruthless warlord, General Chizum (Shutter Island’s Bates Wilder), has captured a young woman—reputedly a harbinger of peace and the possessor of a secret so powerful even she has been kept out of the loop. Two bounty hunters, hired by the resistance—the ‘Free Legion’—have been tasked with her rescue.
Dust of War establishes the brutality of General Chizum’s camp within seconds, opening on a guy puking, the biting off of a…well, I won’t tell you… and close-ups of armed children. Here we see the first of the top-notch ensemble of extras that Kightlinger has enlisted for the hot and dusty days of shooting in the near desert. We see Abel for the first time, undercover as a recruit for the general, being subjected to a rough and tumble inspection of ears, eyes, and mouth. The camera doesn’t shy away away from the bodily grossness, rather delights in it, making us feel and smell the swallowing of messages and subsequent regurgitations—you get the idea—and all of it timed perfectly in the editing, enough to make us gasp, then relieving us from the image and moving the story along. These are harsh times in a world of few loyalties, where civilization has moved on and aliens hold dominion over what’s left of humanity.
Steven Luke communicates Abel’s strength, pain, and transformation throughout the course of the film primarily with his body and to a further degree with his face and eyes—much as he did in playing the lead actor in Paper People, for which he nabbed numerous Best Acting awards—a difficult task since our man of few words doesn’t actually say very much. He keeps the real Abel at arm’s length from his compatriots—and from us—while at the same time making us curious about his quest and his elusive past, about how he got mixed up in the Free Legion in the first place. His name—the biblical ‘Abel’—conjures up symbolic suppositions on his role in the creation of the next world and how he might be treated by his brethren.
Jordan McFadden’s charter as ‘Ellie’, the girl—the harbinger, the one who heralds what is to come (hopefully peace)—is to be strong, mysterious, vulnerable, and of course, beautiful—all of which she pulls off with aplomb. Even out on the godforsaken prairie she manages to provide an element of innocent sex appeal to an otherwise macho canvas. Within her first few moments on screen, we get a taste of the humor that Kightlinger has sprinkled throughout his screenplay when she pokes fun at Abel, to the effect of “…man of few words…a little overdone, don’t you think?” It’s a serious film, but yet one that doesn’t take itself that seriously, and that makes it all the more fun to watch.
As a good screenplay should, Kightlinger’s takes us through the ups, downs, twists, and turns of a roller-coaster plotline. His well-structured script offers much more than a one-dimensional perspective into what could have been nothing more than a bleak passage through dry, dusty scrub. Plot devices such as the presence of pressure mines give the voyeur something to hang onto as we peer into Kightlinger’s world, one that appears disturbingly similar to our own. Tantalizing references to place names like Pittsburg, Chicago, Carnegie Hall, and Madison Square Garden reinforce the idea that Dust of War’s reality is our reality.
Kightlinger’s best gift to the viewer, however, comes in the form of the lighter interludes—the reminders of the happier world that came before. We drop in on a camp of survivors—the good guys—lead by a larger-than-life character called ‘Crispus Hansen’ (played by Tony Todd, in a large performance by a giant of an actor, his character embracing the film within his widespread arms). During the minutes in the camp, Todd’s Crispus stamps a lost humanity onto the film’s brutal backdrop. If we ever found ourselves in a post-apocalyptic situation, we’d want to be within his shelter.
Doug Jones (of Pan’s Labyrinth and Hellboy renown) as Jebediah Strumm holds up the other end of this wondrous episode with spectacular zaniness and a sensitivity that makes us laugh one moment and be in tears minutes later. Jebediah entertains the children of the camp with tea parties and sings them quirky tunes a cappella, all the while endowed with a gift of ‘visions’—another device used effectively by Kightlinger to build enigma into the story. Again, Jebediah is someone you’d want in your post-apocalyptic camp.
A camp isn’t complete without a campfire, and a film shot in this part of the world wouldn’t be complete without the requisite grilling-up of rattlesnakes. Happy images around a normal-seeming campfire complete with hoedown-style music and dancing are captured and edited with bokeh blurring techniques and slowed action that achieve the effect of immersing us deeper into the comfort of being with people we can love in an adverse time, displaying well the poignancy and joy of the human condition around something as simple as a campfire.
In many ways, Dust of War is the culmination of everything that’s good about independent filmmaking. One enormous accomplishment was in rounding up a stellar motley cast of supporting character actors—comic book characters brought to life by impeccable acting. Kightlinger wrote colorful characters and populated them with experienced, finely-honed actors that nail their performances and make us believe that these bizarre personnages would indeed thrive in such a world.
Along with Todd and Jones, Dust of War stars David Midthunder as the tracker ‘Dark Horse’—an essential presence in perhaps a stereotypical American Indian role, but one that works. It’s not an accident that the malevolent General Chizum has exploited a Native American for his vile purposes. And as General Chizum, Bates Wilder embodies the classic evil villain. Hank Ostendorf’s ‘Klamp’ and Paul Cram as ‘Gelman’ take the comic hits for both sides of good versus evil, allowing us to chuckle even as they find themselves in the most gruesome of situations. The darkly handsome and sinister Tristan Barnard as ‘Giger’, quite convincingly in the bad-guy camp, is a filmmaker himself with an already rich cinematography résumé in western South Dakota and beyond, and he double-duties behind the third camera, another example of what independent filmmaking does best.
Gary Graham (Star Trek, Alien Nation) as ‘Tom Dixie’—Abel’s fellow bounty hunter and sidekick—steals the show, his performance bringing much of the humor into the film as well as providing a story-telling cohesiveness to it. He and his character are all-in, and we can’t help but like the guy and cheer for him at every turn.
The soundtrack and sound editing are as well-balanced as the film’s screenplay, ranging from cowboy music to ethereal, wind-chimy tones that rhyme well with those found in a Malick film. The placement of cheery, light-jazzy music coming out of a car radio jars us momentarily out of dystopia, then just as we start humming along, it’s juxtaposed with the cranking of klaxons and the underpinnings of an ominous soundtrack peppered with low, heart-pounding drumming reminiscent of Led Zeppelin’s 1975 classic Kashmir—an ironic similarity since it was on a road cutting through the desert of Southern Morocco that Robert Plant was inspired to write the lyrics to Kashmir.
Dust of War delivers on intense action sequences, with a crazy car chase across the desert in a vintage Mustang, lots of hand-to-hand clashes—swashbuckling, even—along with wild-west-style down, dirty, and bloody shootouts—and they’re all taken to higher levels with impeccable sound effects, another example of what attention to detail has brought to this film.
And finally, the costumes and military equipment provided by Schuetzle’s own production company lend an unheard-of authenticity to Dust of War’s overall look. Broad landscapes of military vehicles in desert camouflage caravanning across the open prairie and hundreds of extras appropriately garbed only enhance the artistry of the film.
And art is what Dust of War is—a sometimes disturbing work of art—but art that invites thought as good art should. Abel’s tale comes to a satisfying denouement for the viewer by way of Kightlinger’s structured writing, yet it leaves us with subtle unanswered questions—and it doesn’t fail to throw in a good twist, one that makes us suddenly wonder about what happens next. And wonder whether Kightlinger and Schuetzle have a Dust of War 2 up their sleeves.