Sometimes it takes a woman to do a man’s job. Or, more accurately, it takes a female filmmaker telling a story of working men to lay the male psyche bare for all to see. Following a group of German construction workers butting heads with the locals while on a job in rural Bulgaria, Western (2017) plays like a slow-burn culture clash bathed in the shadow of historical tension. In Valeska Grisebach’s hands, though, that shadow takes the shape of generations of masculine expectation, and the ensuing fallout is an incisive, thought-provoking and intelligent piece of filmmaking.
Grisebach’s ace in the hole is in how brazenly she sets out her intentions: The film’s title is, in itself, a statement, and her use of that genre’s visual conventions for these thematic ends is quietly radical. Think of the quintessential ‘Western’ and, chances are, you’ll conjure an image of the hulking, red-blooded John Wayne: tough, assertive, gung-ho, and the archetypal ‘leader’. A masculine ideal inexorably tied to its country. Western starts here and works backwards, using the tale of nationalistic one-upmanship to examine what underpins these performative behaviours. Grisebach shoots wide and keeps the pacing slow, seeing her characters’ anxieties reflected in the landscape and using the genre’s language to illuminate them.
Western views its characters as a scientist would objects in a petri dish, patiently observing them on their inevitable, chaotic paths to collision. As these men go from provocatively planting their national flag to arrogantly ogling local girls to, finally, initiating face-saving violence, we see how these self-perpetuating cycles are motivated by anxiety and fear as much as they are bravado. It is to Grisebach’s credit that her subjects never feel like ciphers or stand-ins, too: Spearheaded by a brooding, Michael Shannon-esque turn by Meinhard Neumann, her nonprofessional cast embody their roles with complex, naturalistic performances that make the film feel uncanny and alive.
It’s the director, though, who keeps it all together. Grisebach’s vision is clear, her handling of tone masterful and her sense of craft unimpeachable. Western is an utterly absorbing experience, and a testament to the fresh perspectives offered by diversity in storytelling.