The chief suspense, at first, in Western, Valeska Grisebach’s third feature, lies in classification: What kind of Western will this tense but languid story of a four-man German construction team working on a hydropower project in the forests of Bulgaria resolve itself into? Besides its arresting landscape photography and its interest in the fate of a trusty white steed, Grisebach’s film lingers over many of the classical elements of the genre. Here’s a band of outsiders turning up at a backwoods town, running afoul of the close-knit villagers, ham-fistedly attempting to win the favors of local women. Here’s an outsider to the outsiders, caught between the two factions. Here are standoffs over beers, squabbles about well water and a communal suspicion about outside innovation.
Grisebach is a restless thinker and filmmaker. Nothing in the movie is derivative of Westerns but many of its conflicts and particulars echo them — and the resolutions are all her own. Grisebach’s men (played by nonprofessional actors) tend toward the taciturn and affronted, to refusing to share what they do have and resenting what they don’t.
Episodic at first, its scenes often quick sketches, Western offers, by its end, a complex study of conflicting impulses, strained loyalties, masculine prickliness, knee-jerk xenophobia and the go-nowhere resolutions of violence. The movies it sometimes resembles would build to a climactic showdown, of course, but Grisebach ultimately is concerned with people rather than the demands of genre. Sometimes men here do attack each other, but it’s always a dead end, a bad idea, a spastic flailing that’s more embarrassing than badass. Western finds its characters not gunfighting over territory but discovering how — or how not — to live among each other.