Eternally lost in the desert is ex-vet Jack (Aaron Gaffey), who survived war trauma to become a “high desert handyman” with a granite pokerface and an eyepatch that others can’t help but acknowledge is “badass.” A phone call takes him to the doorstep of Ellen (a frankly adorable Amber Benson), who he hopes to assist with her plumbing issues, but also maybe a bit more? The point is moot as Jack soon encounters her husband, the drugged-out moron Herman (Travis Betz). And it’s Jack’s chivalry that’s going to get him wrapped up in Herman’s trouble, which involve a massive debt to a local kingpin that threatens the couple and their infant child. Jack stoically looks into the distance as he growls, “People killing people is everybody’s problem… including mine,” and at once he punctures the film’s flippant sarcasm with evidence of a genuine moral compass, which surprisingly contrasts strongly to his military flashbacks.
It’s Buzz’s doom-saying that suggests “Dust Up” occurs in a future that’s both near and perilously close to the apocalypse. Buzz seems like a diseased jarhead gone far off the reservation, but he’s smart enough to know that, by the time he’s serving the cooked corpse of a police officer as dinner, he’s also making a political point. Birkitt, to his credit, threatens frequently to run away with the film, giving a performance that’s both seductively likable and sickeningly upsetting. It’s easy to draw the line that starts with him and ends with Lord Humongous of “Mad Max.”
“Dust Up” has its lowbrow affectations (a quarter of a fight scene is spent on the geyser of blood shooting from a man’s genitals), but it’s most definitely a relevant representation of what’s left of the post-millennial counterculture. The picture of which “Dust Up” most clearly reminds is Alex Cox’s wayward “Straight To Hell.” That picture sees its revolutionaries (and counter-revolutionaries) responding to an era’s formal excess with attempts to tear it down. In response, the “rebels” of “Dust Up” are attempting to re-establish seemingly outdated ways of life, if not for appreciation of roots than as a search for structure in a disassociate world, from Jack’s undying need to preserve Ellen’s family to the pre-battle Native American ritual before the gang heads into battle. Like Cox’s work, “Dust Up” has a jangly punk rock spirit, one that doesn’t at any point feel like a pose, even given the film’s formal shortcomings (overlit, iffy shot composition, etc.). Though it’s amazing what one bloody tomahawk attack can do for a shaky-cam action sequence. [B+]