In the remote Bulgarian countryside, not far from the Greek border, a German construction crew begrudgingly brings infrastructure to an isolated village. The cultural divide between invaders and natives, not to mention the additional looming forces of migrants and organized crime, becomes exacerbated by the ingratiation of a loner Meinhard into the fabric of the local community. With nothing back home to keep him, Meinhard finds peace and purpose in the tightly knit Bulgarian community, quickly stirring the ire and competition of his nationalist crew. Such is the complex and engaging genre deconstruction of Valeska Grisebach’s Western.
Grisebach has crafted an ideological reimagining on the traditional genre of its title, turning the tropes on their head for a contemporary lens that sheds much of the troublesome staples of the genre and its roots in Americana. Meinhard is the stoic outsider, led by a enterprising imperialism against a tribe to which he feels compelled. The landscape is as appealing as it is unyielding, desolate but rich with a history that our hero can only flirt with, at once long dead and yet so palpably alive. There is a cultural war between nations, each feeling like the other is parasitic until they see needs to be wooed.
The soul of the film is Meinhard Neumann’s soulful leading performance. Somewhat shocking that this is a debut performance, the actor has the enigmatic gravitas to recall the cinematic icons of the genre but paired with a natural delivery of contemporary stylings. His chiseled face and pained eyes are at once vacant and oceanic, expressing the masculine external posturing of his lot and existential, harder to place aimlessness. In scenes where he reveals his familial past and a later plot turn that dare not be spoiled, his quiet shifts are heartbreaking as he stumbles toward something more.
Despite a third act that putters out before a haunting final moment, Grisebach makes Western a lingering and uncommonly curious film. The reach for genre commentary and larger social context is graceful, feeling at once like a natural unfolding and in control by a potential new major voice in cinema.
For a recontextualization of a bygone genre, the film is quite modern in its filmic worldview, certainly more than the more punishing would-be rehashes like Hell or High Water. While not necessarily of a piece with current waves of radical cinematic empathy, it shows that tropes and archetypes need not be tied to iconography or even continents. Nor to serving patriarchal agendas. For every “actually, it’s a western” that really just dishes American southwest macho claptrap, here is a film that actually toys with how the pieces of a genre actually function. It’s an ingenious deconstruction that also operates primarily with humanity.