Like many of the greatest films in the genre that its title pays homage to, Valeska Grisebach’s Western takes its time. Small, slow scenes build and build until inevitable explosions of miscalculated anger burst from the screen, and it’s only once these crescendos are reached that you realise just how immersed you’ve been in its world. With a horse central to the story and attempts at frontier justice, there’s more than just the title to link Grisebach’s film to those of Ford or Leone, but this is a piece far more concerned with shame and pride than violence, a supremely engaging study of the limits of masculinity.
The frontier here is not the untamed west of the 1800s or any sort of wild desert, but rural Bulgaria in the present day. A team of German engineers has been dispatched to these hills to construct a hydro-electric plant, and it’s not long before their arrogance, particularly that of foreman Vincent (Reinhardt Vetrek) and the language barrier make for hostility with the locals. Only reserved ex-soldier Meinhard (Meinhard Neumann) makes positive inroads, the townsfolk bonding with him after he forges a mostly wordless connection with local bigwig Adrian (Syuleyman Alilov Letifov).
Deft characterisation and world-building makes the growth of these relationships constantly compelling to watch. Understated changes and moments of progress are all the more powerful and enjoyable for Grisebach’s restraint in focusing on them, trusting the audience to pick up on the developments. Events that wouldn’t be much more than background noise in most films have a life or death importance for the characters, and, thanks to the authenticity of every encounter, these feelings are infectious. Traditional machismo is the currency of Meinhard and Adrian’s worlds, and Grisebach displays a superb insight into this uniquely male psychology and the ways in which generally closed-off men find ways to express themselves.
Western very much goes at its own pace, and though it’s never boring, there are definite lulls in its story. As the work on the plant grinds to a frustrating halt after a delayed shipment of gravel (match those stakes, Infinity War), an aimlessness takes hold of the engineers and the film. Some scenes though, like a massive party in the third act, crackle with an anxious, near-panicky energy. Music blares and drunkenness takes hold, and the air of unpredictability that sets in is breath-catchingly tense, dormant conflicts stirring as day turns to night. A very abrupt ending initially strikes as odd, but soon coalesces into something that makes perfect sense, showing off Grisebach’s immaculately constructed script.
Her directing is generally unobtrusive and never flashy, though she does conjure some real beauty from the Bulgarian hills, and the lack of score completes an atmosphere that is immersive without ever being really wowing. Excellent performances from a fantastic cast (about a 50/50 German/Bulgarian split, with only a few translators) round out this intelligent, confident, and skilful drama that establishes Grisebach as one of Europe’s most exciting filmmakers.