Monday, March 05, 2012

Kiwi Western: Good for Nothing

For many, New Zealand’s wide vistas will bring to mind Monument Valley, as immortalized by John Ford. There were not a lot of women to be found in such an environment during the late Nineteenth Century, so when an outlaw sees one, he takes her in Mike Wallis’s “Kiwi Western,” Good for Nothing (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

After the death of her father, the British Isabella Montgomery has journeyed west to live on her uncle’s ranch. Unfortunately, an unnamed outlaw takes her on a bit of a detour after gunning down her escorts. He has definite ideas of what to do with her, but while the desire is there, the mechanics are malfunctioning, so to speak.

What follows is sort of a bodice-ripper, in which Montgomery’s bodice is never ripped. Saving her from a sheriff worse them himself, the nameless man drags Montgomery across the Southwest (by way of Central Otago on New Zealand’s South Island) as he seeks herbal remedies from Chinese mining camps and Native American shaman, while the Old West’s least distinguished posse follows erratically behind them.

Granted, Montgomery’s relationship with “The Man” is inherently problematic, but Wallis deals with it rather nimbly. Unlike scores of romance novels, Montgomery is never waiting for her captor to ravish her. Instead, she more-or-less forges an uneasy peace with him for survival’s sake, made possible by his performance issues. Yet, she persists in looking for getaway opportunities until quite late in the game.

Wallis further leavens the hovering specter of nearly all the men’s intentions with some inventively outrageous sequences that approach the downright slapstick. Cohen Holloway and Inge Rademeyer also share some convincing not-chemistry as their not-romance develops. The latter nicely expresses Montgomery’s fear and resourcefulness, but the former’s screen presence is a bit light, especially compared to the Spaghetti Western protagonists he is trying to pay homage to.

Cinematographer Matthew Knight masters the big lonesome look of the more brooding westerns from days past, whereas Wallis keeps it all moving along at a healthy clip. (Indeed, it compares quite well to the sluggish Quigley Down Under, an obvious but imperfect comparison). Mostly avoiding pitfalls and fulfilling its ambitions, Good for Nothing is recommended for those who appreciate a gritty revisionist western. It opens this Friday (3/9) in New York at the Quad Cinema.