It’s not just Hollywood films that are too-often short on ideas. Too often I run into low-budget (or, no-budget) films which stretch their barren concepts to the breaking point and beyond; taking what could have made a fine short film, and dragging the viewer through 90 minutes of spinning wheels.
And then you have films like DUST UP, which are so mindbogglingly overstuffed with strange characters and bizarre situations that you wonder how it could ever have been made in the first place. While positing itself as an exploitation throwback, DUST UP really has little in common with Grindhouse cinema. The Leone-inspired opening credits suggest a debt owed to spaghetti westerns, but aside from the soundtrack and a few moments from the main characters (and some stylized camera angles), there’s only a minor resemblance. Instead this is a kitchen-sink mash-up of influences, filled to the brim by writer/director Ward Roberts, that just barely manages to sustain its giddy energy until the closing credits. It’s pleasantly strange, often hilarious, and a glorious mess of a film.
I’m baffled at how to explain the plot in a way that doesn’t sound completely mad. One-eyed former vigilante Jack (Aaron Gaffey) lives a quiet existence in the desert, occasionally working as a handy-man and spending time with his hipster Native American friend Mo (Devin Barry). Meanwhile single mother Ella (Amber Benson) is dealing with a house that’s falling apart and a junkie deadbeat boyfriend, who is in debt to insane (and eventually cannibalistic) bar-owner and drug dealer Buzz (Jeremiah Birkett). Of course, the characters all eventually come together in a deliriously violent bloodbath. The only question is.. who will survive, and what will be left of them?
That plot summary doesn’t even begin to capture the madness – or humor – that defines much of what makes DUST UP such a continually interesting feature. Roberts packs his frame with arresting, colorful imagery and memorable supporting characters, and his camera takes great glee in capturing the sand swept California locations. While occasionally a bit overstuffed with music, the score (by THE LEGEND OF GOD’S GUN’s Kirpatrick Thomas) effectively captures the Spaghetti western promise of the opening credits. Roberts script might occasionally go for cheap – though effective – laughs, but the production as a whole is impressively polished.
But a film this packed with quirk lives and dies by its performers, and thankfully the ensemble here is one of the best I’ve seen in a low-budget production. Aaron Gaffey’s Jack is a loner with a mysterious past, but he brings plenty of heart to a role that could easily have been a gruff Clint Eastwood imitation. He also rocks an eyepatch. BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER’s Amber Benson doesn’t get a ton to do in a role that requires her to play things fairly straight, but she comes to (violent) life in the film’s climax. But the most notable performances comes from reliable character actor Jeremiah Birkett, who happily chews every last piece of the scenery, commanding attention whenever he’s onscreen. Even when he’s ordering around his drug-worshiping cult of followers to chow down on a recently murdered and fried sheriff, he walks the line between terrifying and hilarious. A truly memorable villain.
It’s some weird, wild, wacky stuff, but has a wicked sense of humor that propels it past most of the Grindhouse wannabees of recent years. While featuring plenty of violence – particularly in the climax (which even has a quick tribute to CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST) – it’s plenty of goofy fun that manages to come up with something truly original from its disparate influences. DUST UP delivers the goods, and Ward Roberts is definitely a director to watch.
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