Westender (2003) is the directorial debut for Brock Morse. Westender tells the story of a revered knight who has fallen from grace and his transformation to his former self. The film stars Blake Stadel and the film’s composer Rob Simonsen.
There is a lot of passion for this project. Filmed in Morse’s home state of Oregon, the scenery in the film is one of Westender‘s best qualities. The landscapes — be it forest, mountain, or desert — are beautiful to look at, even if the action on screen isn’t that engaging. It takes a lot of guts to make a fantasy epic as a first film with a meager budget. The outcome is heartfelt but unpolished. The script is severely lacking. I like the mystery of the protagonist Asbrey of Westender, that he has somehow lost his way from knighthood and that he has lost love in his past, but the narrative leaves many more questions unanswered than resolved. For instance, the opening text of the film addresses some lore of good and evil, but the film never sets up or explains the film’s established world. What is the political and governmental set-up? Is this historical fiction or pure fantasy emulating the Middle Ages? As for Asbrey of Westender — what is the significance of Westender? To title the film after something that isn’t explained is careless. The script meanders and lingers far too much. I get the sense that Morse wanted to let things breath and have that gravitas of a fantasy epic, but the elements that loiter in the film drastically curtail the momentum. One example is when Asbrey and Grim find the procession of knights. They just watch the march shuffle by for a languidly long time before doing anything. Another example is when Asbrey wanders around the desert for an excruciatingly long time. The audience gets the idea of the lost hero finding himself in a desolate place — we do not need to go through our own walkabout while watching the film.
Independent films have the freedom to play outside the convention of bigger film companies. Storylines can explore innovative delivery and don’t always have to be tied in a neat bow at the end. However, Westender leaves too many things unresolved. The whole premise of the film is Asbrey’s search for his ring. He never gets it. The film’s one shining comedic relief, Grim — played by composer Rob Simonsen — is a delight, but he’s written out of the script and completely disappears. In the film’s “climax”, some folks unfortunately cross paths with Asbrey and the thief who stole his ring. They speak a different language; the young man in their group threatens Asbrey at one point but saves his life, but their whole existence is never explained. Who are these people? Other than some crying children who can attempt to create an emotionally heavy moment.
There are some shining moments in the film. Along with the scenery, Simonsen’s score is the best part of Westender. His music is highly fantastical and sweepingly grand. The score gives the film a grandeur and depth that frankly would never have been achieved otherwise. Though, at times, the script’s extremely slow pacing interferes with the natural phrasing of the music, causing it to be elongated or stifled to fill up the empty space. The lead actor, Stadel, is committed. It might be over the top at times, but this film needed devoted acting to keep the audience engaged with Asbrey’s story. Simonsen’s acting is also charming, with the right comedic timing.
All in all, the film falls a little flat. Its production value is low, evident in the big battle scenes and obviously choreographed action sequences. The spirit and heart of a grand fantasy epic are there — heard in Simonsen’s beautiful score — but the narrative fails in its responsibilities in storytelling. The script needed more refining before filming. It sets some interesting ideas in motion but lets them fizzle out or wander around aimlessly. The potential was there without the ample execution.