Dustin Hucks here, with another selection from the Santa Barbara International Film Festival.
Fairly early in the festival I viewed the world premier of Good for Nothing, the debut feature from New Zealand director Mike Wallis. My original intent was to review the film soon after leaving the theater – but I suppose my tendency to be easily distracted served me well, because I ended up with three days to marinate on what I saw and felt – and give the film its proper due.
Good for Nothing is a relatively unique turn on the Spaghetti Western – what Wallis calls a Kiwi ‘Pavlova’ Western. Like its well known genre counterpart, the film is physically set in the native land of its creators and actors. Lucky for their audience, said land is beautiful South Island, New Zealand, which has the perfect mix of arid desolation and rough, frontier terrain to flawlessly mimic the American Southwest. The framework of the story is fairly standard -- Isabella Montgomery (Inge Rademeyer) is an Englishwoman traveling into the rough Western territory to live with her uncle on his ranch after the death of her father. After perhaps a not so bright stop at a saloon full of the usual rough customers, Isabella’s escorts are murdered, she’s kidnapped, and almost raped if not for the sudden sexual failings of our mostly silent protagonist.
Yeah, I said it – protagonist. More on that later…
Good for Nothing is in many ways a story of unrequited love, tossed with a mix of drama, and surprisingly well-placed comedy (most pathetic showdown…ever) considering the subject matter. After dispatching with the local lawman in an unnamed town, Isabella’s captor (Cohen Holloway) spends much of the film riding from location-to-location in search of treatment for his ailment – as the inability to have his way with her is of great concern and confusion to him, and unknowingly being pursued by a posse attempting to put him down. During these travels, Isabella and “The Man” slowly begin to develop a relationship – he one of awkward and very heavy-handed affection toward his prisoner, and her of a realization of the world she is now in, and perhaps and understanding of his part in it.
If you’re anything like me, the entire premise to this point seems sort of untenable. It’s difficult to give credit to even an anti-hero with that particular line-up of bad deeds. This, however – is where director/producer/writer Mike Wallis makes me a believer.
He very well could have turned the dynamic of the relationship between Isabella and The Man into an oddly romantic one, and audience members were even clamoring for it after the film – a testament to doing things right on the page. There was a very fine line that Mike walked in his writing, and how he directed the interaction between his co-leads, Rademeyer and Holloway. He could have very easily gone off the rails and done the inexplicable in turning their relationship into an awful, unrealistic romance.
The Man is very much a product of his environment – it’s not that he’s inherently bad, but rather – his surroundings and interactions have shaped his perception and deeds. Basically -- dude is messed up. Cohen Holloway does a fantastic job of not only giving him menace, but myriad other subtle shades of personality, most of which are done without a word – the vast majority of his screen time is spent in silence.
Inge Rademeyer plays Isabella with a defiant naiveté. She has an expectation of the world she’s entering at the beginning of the film, and holds to that in spite of much of what she sees and experiences until later in the film. It’s fun to watch Isabella grow as a character, and eventually find her place in the environment she inhabits. It’s also noteworthy that Inge never really seems to play the Stockholm Syndrome angle – which would have been easy, and even made sense.
Good for Nothing is a visually beautiful film, shot amazingly well on a slim budget – many of the more impressive shows of scenery are filmed from Inge and Mike’s moving car. Wallis and Rademeyer (she co-produced the film along with pulling acting duty) also had the great benefit of swinging an original score from much touted New Zealand composer John Psathas, who among other great accomplishments provided the opening and closing music for the ’04 Athens Olympics.
I’d love to see Good for Nothing get picked up for distribution here on the States, as audiences clearly enjoyed it (it has already garnered an additional showing here at the SBIFF), and well – who doesn’t love a good Western, particularly one with a unique angle? Even if it doesn’t, however – it’ll be well worth tracking down on DVD and adding to your collection once it's available to the masses.
Keep an eye out as I cover yet more of the Santa Barbara International Film festival, including the much anticipated director’s panel with Darren Aronofsky, David O. Russell, and Tom Hooper among others.