$5 Bargain Bin DVD Review: Westender

OK, I promised more B-movie reviews.

A guy goes on a quest for a ring, and he walks across most of Oregon to do it.

It’s a simple enough premise, which is marketed well for an indie film. Pictures and quotes from the movie's website here. Here’s what the producers, MOB productions, have to say about their movie:

"Westender is the story of one man's long journey toward redemption. Not quite a mainstream genre film, and not quite an art film, Westender strives to be a unique type of movie; a category unto itself. It looks like a mainstream film, was shot with mainstream sensibilities, and has genre appeal. Yet the core story of Westender is ultimately far more of an internal odyssey than the plot-driven narrative it appears and feels."

Ultimately, in trying to be too many things at once, Westender fails at all of them. However, the movie does have some powerful moments. Westender touches an archetypal struggle, and it manages to do so despite its shortcomings.

Now, I might seem like I’m nitpicking here, but a major strike against Westender is that it doesn’t play. The DVD actually did not play in my DVD player—it wasn’t even recognized. So I watched this on my laptop. Even then, the transfer was not so great. In fact, the poor transfer hamstrung Westender’s greatest strength—the natural beauty of Oregon.

Without giving anything away, I’ll summarize the plot. A knight (Asbrey of Westender) has fallen from grace—exactly how, we are not told. It is strongly hinted that Asbrey’s fall was due to a forbidden love (a woman who was burned at the stake by the same authorities Asbrey served). Asbrey clings to the only token of his glorious past—a ring recovered from the ashes of his lover. Unfortunately, Asbrey gets drunk and gambles the ring away. He spends the rest of the movie trying to find it, and ultimately has to make a choice. Does he sacrifice his ideals to regain the symbol of his knighthood? Or does he forsake the ring in order to act the part of a true knight?

This choice represents a larger struggle that Christians must face. (Yes, I’m plumbing the depths of a B-movie for theology). More on that later.

I’ve hinted at the movie’s weaknesses. Aside from the poor transfer, the dialogue is (in many places) simply awful. There are few speaking parts in the film, and the jester/minstrel guy (Glim) is just embarrassing to watch. Glim’s lines seem taken straight from a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure book, and they are delivered with skill reminiscient of Rudy Ray Moore in Dolemite (although actor Rob Simonsen does deliver charisma that even outperforms the pimp-cane-totin’ Moore). A second major speaking part is given equally dismal lines, but they are delivered with considerably more skill. The gypsy woman who appears at the beginning of the film is very well portrayed (I believe it’s Sarin, played by Darlene Dadras … but she is not credited on the movie’s website. A pity. Strangely, Dadras’ only other film performance is in the Waiters, in which she plays “Erin.”) Dadras is gorgeous and sincere, and plays her small part so well that when Asbrey walks away from her offer of employment (and companionship), we want to smack him on the back of the head and say, “Dude! What were you thinking?”

Then there’s Asbrey himself. Actor Blake Stadel stands out as the true talent in the film, and he is even able to take his part and run with it. Stadel underplays his part very well. The fallen knight—who deftly avoids the redemption he desperately needs—takes on an archetypal quality. Long after the movie is over and you regret spending $5 and 90 minutes on it, Asbrey’s struggle stays with you.

Partial credit must be given to Rob Simonsen—the same guy who cast a pall over the first part of the film with his depressing delivery of the film’s superfluous comic relief. Thankfully, Glim is written out of the script early. Too bad he wasn’t written out entirely, because then we could remember Rob Simonsen for his best contribution to the film—the score. Simonsen’s music is subtle, and it combines flutes, strings, horns, and vocals (take that, James Horner!). The music blends well with the deserts, forests, rivers, and mountains of Oregon. Simonsen never overuses a theme, nor does he repeat one unnecessarily (hear that, Hans Zimmer?) Every track has a new variation. Honestly, Simonsen’s excellent music deserved a much better movie. (I personally use it for jogging in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains).

MOB Productions should also be given credit for telling a story. A good story leaves the audience asking questions at the end. Why was Asbrey’s lover burned at the stake? What happened to the jester? What becomes of the slave family Asbrey rescues? Does he ever eventually find the ring? Mainstream Hollywood should take note; there are too many “action” epics that painfully pursue every side story and backstory until the audience feels as if it has been subjected to a thorough reading of the tax code.

In short, Westender could have been very good if it had been an art film, instead of an art film that tried to also be a fantasy film. Oregon is the best actor in the film. Its lush forests and cascading rivers give way to parched deserts and skeletal trees—just as Asbrey’s illusion of himself as a knight is stripped from him. Asbrey is confronted by a wolf at two moments in the film when he begins to rebuild himself; at a critical moment, the wolf shows Asbrey the way through the desert (before it vanishes into the landscape).

Unfortunately, Westender’s fantasy elements make watching it again an unpleasant experience. The writers seem to have taken dialogue lessons from such fantasy debacles as Krull, and that thing Tom Cruise was in before he was famous, and that thing Peter MacNicol was in before he was famous. A perfect example: Asbrey’s homeland seems nothing more than the most generic picture of late medieval Europe (which would work as an archetype if it weren’t made so corny by dialogue and acting). Near the end of the film, Asbrey encounters another culture—a race of blondes whose acting lessons consisted of watching Billy Idol sneer.

Why is an Episcopal priest taking the time to review this film? I was intrigued by the beginning titles: “In the beginning, no man was higher in birth than any other, for all were descended from a single father and mother. But when envy and covetousness came into the world, and might triumphed over right, certain men were appointed as guarantors and defenders of the weak and humble.” This is from the French classic, Lancelot of the Lake. The ideals of knighthood espoused therein were likely never attained by the corrupt feudal lords of the day, but it never hurts to dream, eh? Apparently, by the time Asbrey becomes a knight, the ideals have changed somewhat. Asbrey’s knightly commission seems more concerned with the failings of others, and less concerned with acting as a beacon of hope: “Go henceforth with unstained blade and wash sin and heresy from this land.” (I’m hearing echoes of the Crusades, the Inquisition, and more current Anglican Inquisitors). Asbrey’s downfall comes when his true love is deemed to be a representative of sin and heresy, and is burned at the stake (at least, this is what the film hints). The film also hints that Asbrey’s return to knightly service is for the purposes of reforming the corrupt system from the inside (but maybe I’m reading too much into the script).

Asbrey’s choice at the end of the film is spelled out clearly. Does he pursue the villain who has stolen his ring, and in so doing, abandon helpless captives to a life of slavery? Or does he risk his life to save the captives (and let the ring escape)? In other words, does he abandon his vows to chase after lost glory, or does he sacrifice his ego to become a true servant?

We are in an age when our beloved church (at least, the institution) is continually exposed to the world. It is rife with corruption (not to mention sin and heresy). The Episcopal Church stands at a key moment in history (as it has several times). Several factions within our ranks have already made their choice. Several church leaders, lay and ordained, have abandoned their vows to chase after glory. Others have made the more humble choice (and therefore, their choices are not highly publicized, unless they are also being highly criticized). What would making the right choice look like? What would a true servant look like at this moment in the Episcopal Church’s story? If Asbrey’s struggle is any indication, then true servants (lay and ordained) will need to be stripped of their pride and desires—an experience that will be painful whether we are radically progressive or reasserter-ive. We will need to “cross the barren desert” until we are ready to receive redemption. We must, like Asbrey, cast off our armor (whether that armor is progressive or homophobic) so that we may wear the “breastplate of righteousness.” We, like Asbrey, will need to die to ourselves.

The ideals of knighthood and kings (and queens) are still with us. We recently (about a month ago) celebrated the lesser feast of King Edmund of East Anglia. Confronted by an unbeatable army of marauding Danes, Edmund was offered the chance to live like a king as a figurehead, if only he would abandon his vows and forsake Christ. Instead, Edmund mustered his army and fought a battle he knew he would lose. Edmund and his army were lost, but his kingship lived on. If we (lay ministers, bishops, priests, and deacons) can truly abandon our dreams of pride and glory, then Christ’s kingship will live on in us. If (and considering the egos involved, this is a pretty big IF), we can die to ourselves, then we might be able to teach the world about a certain victory of life and peace. As King Theoden states in that other movie about a ring, “Hail the victorious dead!”

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