Movie Review: Dust

Dust is a slow-burning dystopian crime drama thriller from writer-director, Pieter du Plessis. While a feature film debut as director, du Plessis has a spectrum of experience as a filmmaker and shows remarkable restraint through an artful and pensive film. Dust is an atmospheric drama with neo-noir western vibrations, which while set in South Africa, deals with universal themes relating to social structures.

The story follows Rachel, a young woman whose family find asylum at an isolated farm. Her hobbling father is winding down, her young brother is on the cusp of his teens and she’s struggling to keep it all together. The title speaks to the dry conditions, scarcity of water and also the idea of human fragility as the family begin to realise the true cost of their stay. Centring on some key performances, an outlying farm and leaning on a fairly sparse script, the film has a haunting poetic quality carried through by its wistful sometimes claustrophobic cinematography.

Dust stars Shana Mans in her first leading role, who is supported by Michelle Bradshaw, Kaz McFadden, Gustav Gerdener and Danielle Goodall. Mans has the makings of a star, carrying a disarming spirit and delivering a sturdy lead performance. This is made easier thanks to a solid team effort from her supporting cast. Bradshaw channels a fierce and maniacal intensity as the matriarch, McFadden pitches a dependable and well-balanced turn, Gerdener immerses himself in the slime of a detestable character while Goodall’s enigmatic and innocent screen presence is truly felt through an elemental performance.

Dust’s neo-noir western vibrations are influenced by films such as No Country for Old Men and The Hateful Eight. There aren’t any horses or Stetsons but the idea of a lawless society, stretched by a lack of resources and ruled by the bullet has a strong resonance with western films. It’s easy to imagine it playing out in the Wild West or in the vacuum of any new frontier situation. Originally envisaged for the Karoo, the film was transplanted in the Highveld during winter in order to capture the feel of dry desolation and post-ecological collapse.

Dust Film

“We are family. It’s just my brother, pops and me.”

The South African drama features an all-white cast, which is a bold move within the current socio-political context in spite of its western edge. As du Plessis puts it, he chose to focus on other problematic social structures when writing the screenplay and didn’t want the film to become about racial oppression or become misconstrued as a political commentary on farm attacks. Dealing with aspects around toxic masculinity and it’s perpetuation, Dust manages to offer a variety of depictions of the male construct, without becoming preachy. Given the post #MeToo movement and the film’s hot topics, there was an added effort to avoid unintentionally glorifying toxic mindsets and guarding against these dynamics on set.

There’s a tendency to overwrite screenplays. Yet, the medium of film allows audiences to engage beyond the words and du Plessis finds his own balance, allowing the performances to convey much of the meaning. This sparse feel creates silences that may be disconcerting for those used to watching busier movies. Coupled with an equally light soundtrack that underscores emotional undercurrents and bigger moments, Dust can be a fairly alienating experience. While slow-burning intensity can create a smoldering feel and add layers of tension, it also runs the risk of disconnection.

Dust is a fascinating drama about society but struggles to keep its hooks in. The induction situation is tense but the characters remain aloof, never fully feeling the weight of their slow-creeping predicament. There’s an urgency at times but the stakes just aren’t high enough and without a fixed emotional connection, it’s difficult to care beyond the point of grave injustice. The slow-moving pacing, hard-hitting themes, neo-noir western earmarks and poetic mood swathe Dust in intrigue. Yet, it’s also equally restrained by some of these strengths keeping characters and actions at such a distance that it’s difficult to build momentum or grow with the story.

Dust has so much promise and offers glimpses of its true potential but unfortunately doesn’t line up. The dystopian crime drama thriller and neo-noir western will appeal to those who enjoy moody, poetic and thoughtful art house films and is a good showcase for the budding talents involved. Yet, Dust becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, elemental and natural yet failing to gather momentum, build on itself or find its true form.

The bottom line: Intriguing