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“Ask the Dust” harkens back to when the unconventional was the norm and to be a strange and peculiar piece of filmmaking was not frowned upon.  It’s dreamy and wonders from place to place at its own pace, but never is it too aloof as to float away into nothingness.  It’s the kind of movie that only appreciators of the hard to define are likely to embrace in any way.

Directed by Robert Towne of “Chinatown” fame, “Dust” follows the life of tentative, young writer Bandini, Colin Farrell, and the relationships he forms with two women of 1920’s Los Angeles, one Hispanic, one Jewish.  For most of its story “Dust” refuses to move along in any conventional sense.  Farrell’s Bandini meets Selma Hayek’s Camilla and the two begin a strange, tumultuous love/hate relationship.  For reasons neither can quite understand they bring out the worst in each other.  They know an attraction exist between them, but every encounter ends with an insult or painful barb at someone’s expense.  Bandini then meets Vera, a damaged woman who at first seems scary and repulsive, but as Bandini learns, there is more to her than simple obsession.  His time with her fosters feelings of sympathy and understanding that he can’t discover or express while with Camilla.  All of this is a journey of self discovery for Farrell’s writer.  Is he the cruel bastard?  Does he hate Camilla?  What is it about Vera that draws out his sympathy?  How can he be a writer if he doesn’t feel and experience all the things life has to offer?  This is the thrust of “Dust’s” plot.  It’s a story of emotional exploration and it wonders into many fascinating places.

Farrell once again shows that he is not a lightweight actor.  Before sobbering up this past year, he let his off screen behavior dictate his reputation as an actor and that was a shame.  Between this,”The New World”, “In Bruges” and the also unjustly maligned “Miami Vice”, Farrell has built an impressive body of work that has been largely unappreciated.  Though “Alexander” will probably dog him forever.   Salma Hayek also provides a solid performance as Camille.  A woman who is both fierce and frightened, this may be one of the only occasions in which Hayek has crafted a respectable and fully formed performance which doesn’t exclusively rely on her being eye candy.  The two play off of each other with a lot of skill and it makes the dismissal of “Dust” by most critics a tad surprising.

Unique and with much to admire, “Ask the Dust” sadly drifts onto the path of conventionality in its final act.  Of all the places where it’s free form narrative could’ve wound up going, director Towne steers his tale onto the path of a doomed romance that all will see coming from miles around.  Never cough in movies.  The film’s warm glow diminishes into something which feels pedestrian and unnecessary.  It’s like breaking through the tree line of a mysterious forest only to find yourself in your own back yard.  It isn’t catastrophic, but it’s by turns too earnest, too unimaginative, and much too routine.  All of which are things that I didn’t think “Ask the Dust” would have wrapped inside of it while watching it’s first two acts.  The final scene sets some of this right.  It recaptures an appropriate sense of sadness and poetry, but the overall effect has been lessened.  It’s still a worthy, mostly one of a kind, movie.  Had it had the where with all to follow its more daring tendencies, “Ask the Dust” may have turned out to be some kind of odd ball classic.

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