"Dust" is a bust, a big bad movie of the scope, ambition and bravura that could be made only by a talented filmmaker run amok. Macedonian-born, New York-based Milcho Manchevski, whose first film was the elegiac 1994 "Before the Rain," attempts a Middle Eastern western, a fusion suggesting the timeless universality of chronic bloodlust. It's a potent visual idea, full of darkly amusing irony but undercut by wretched excess, underdeveloped characters and a queasy mix of sentimentality and violence. Its framing story, while absolutely a stretch, is far sturdier than its flashback, in which three central figures are never more than mere ciphers. It has energy and cinematic flourishes to burn, but its savagery is so incessant that the film is ultimately merely numbing when it aims to be wrenching.
An elaborate tracking shot commences in a seedy New York street at night and climbs to the window of a small, cluttered apartment. Inside, a young burglar, Edge (Adrian Lester), is ransacking the place with little reward and increasing angry frustration when he comes upon Angela (Rosemary Murphy), an ailing, elderly woman in her bed, lying in darkness and surrounded by countless medicine bottles. Edge seriously underestimates Angela's sharpness and capacity for self-defense; the upshot is that she tempts him with allusions to a stash of gold coins to get him to listen to her spin an incredible tale.
Once the screen goes a luminous, hazy black-and-white to suggest the past, it's clear that in the flashbacks there will be no ordinary western unfolding, for "Cherry Orchard" is the least likely name for a brothel of the Old West, with nary a Madame Ranevskaya in sight -- nor a virgin for the picking, for that matter. A popular regular, the gunfighter Luke (David Wenham), brings along his Bible-quoting younger brother, Elijah (Joseph Fiennes), so that his favorite, Lilith (Anne Brochet), can initiate Elijah into manhood. So taken with Lilith is Elijah that he promptly marries her, inflaming Luke's jealousy to the extent that enmity between the brothers drives Luke to Europe, where in Paris he sees a primitive newsreel reporting the fall of the Ottoman Empire and images of Macedonia overrun by savage hordes of bounty hunters, their most lucrative target a Macedonian revolutionary leader called Teacher. Luke sets off to nab the Teacher, lunging into a torrent of bloodshed and slaughter, intensified by invading Turkish forces. For reasons of his own, Elijah pursues Luke to Macedonia for a standoff.
Manchevski cuts furiously between past and present, and the implication that Angela may be embellishing Luke's exploits could be amusing had Manchevski given Luke and Elijah any dimension or personality and not wallowed in nonstop violence. This is not to say he exaggerates the horrors of this or any subsequent Balkan uprising. That Atom Egoyan's eloquent "Ararat," which has some virtually identical images, approaches the Turkish genocide of the Armenians indirectly makes Egoyan's tactic seem all the more powerful in its effect compared with Manchevski's head-on bluntness.
That acerbic, fearless Angela could have such a potentially transforming effect on the brutal Edge seems a sentimental stretch. But the talents of Murphy, whose screen appearances are infrequent, and young Lester make Angela and Edge's relationship more persuasive than it has any reasonable right to be. (Only at the film's climax is it revealed how Angela is connected with Luke.)
Murphy is unquestionably the film's star and major character, and she is a glory even if the film is not. Had Manchevski given the same kind of substance and weight to Luke and Elijah he could have achieved a balance between past and present, a major drawback of the film along with its excessive violence. Under such circumstances there's little incentive to consider the film's allegorical implications and various allusions.
"Dust" is a great-looking film of vast scope, and cinematographer Barry Ackroyd brings it a rich texture and bold panache, which could also be said of David Munns' imaginative and detailed production design and Kiril Dzajkovski's score. The passion, free-spiritedness and vision that Manchevski brings to "Dust" makes his self-indulgence all the more depressing.
MPAA rating: R for sequences of strong violence, sexual content and language.
Times guidelines: Incessant, extreme violence throughout.
A Lions Gate Films presentation. Writer-director Milcho Manchevski. Producers Chris Auty, Vesna Jovanoska, Domenico Procacci. Cinematographer Barry Ackroyd. Editor Nic Gaster. Music Kiril Dzajkovski. Costumes Anne Jendritzko, Ane Crabtree, Meta Sever. Production designer David Munns. Art directors Nenad Pecur, Ivo Husniak. Set decorator Stephanie Carroll. Running time: 2 hours, 4 minutes.
Exclusively at the Beverly Center Cineplex, Beverly Boulevard at La Cienega Boulevard, (310) 652-7760; and The Grove Stadium 14, 3rd Street and The Grove Drive, (323) 692-0829.