Isaac De Bankolé is one of those great character actors who always seems to be on the verge of stardom. Having worked with the likes of Jim Jarmusch, Lars von Trier, Michael Mann and Julian Schnabel, he is usually the guy whose strong face many will instantly recognize even if his name does not ring any bells. Fortunately for the actor, his excellent work in the modern western Mirage should change that.
The film focuses on a black drifter named Francis (De Bankolé), a stoic man who seems to have walked right out of Sergio Leone’s “The Man with No Name” playbook. Although little is revealed about Francis over the course of the film, it is clear that a criminal incident in his past is the reason he fled the Ivory Coast. Now traveling across the desolate Hungarian landscape, his complexion betrays the low profile he is trying to maintain. Upon coming across an old barely functioning train station, Francis advises the owner – who is clearly stunned by the presence of a black man – that he would like to ride it to the tavern…seemingly located in another town. Though the train appears to be on its last legs, it is actually the conductor who kicks the bucket midway through the journey.
Stuck in the middle of nowhere, and in an era where criminals have not only taken over farm land but also reinstated slave labour camps, Francis finds himself in an area run by Cisco (Razvan Vasilescu). Controlling the comings and goings in the region, even the local law enforcement is powerless to stop Cisco’s illegal activities. Considering that his options are limited, Francis strikes up a deal with Cisco to work the land for money and lodging. However, he soon realizes that the agreement is more one-sided than advertised. As the dark side of Cisco’s enterprise begins to reveal itself, it becomes clear to Francis that leaving the farm is not going to be as easy as he thought.
Taking a minimalist approach to his narrative, director Szabolcs Hajdu asks a fair bit from the viewer. Presenting just enough information to keep the story moving forward, Hajdu leaves the audience to fill in many of the numerous gaps. The challenge with this though is the fact that the stripped-down nature of Mirage leaves a lot to interpretation. The black and white images that serve as chapter breaks help to set the stage, but even their meaning in the grand scheme of things becomes blurry at times. There are even points where the mind begins to wonder away from the story due to Hajdu’s slight tendency to become overly immersed in his own visual prowess.
Normally such indulgences would be chastised, but it is rather forgivable considering how mesmerizing the visual composition of Mirage is. Providing a dreamlike allure to the western genre, literally turning it on its head in the last shot, Hajdu crafts a tale whose poetic beauty cannot be ignored. One imagines that if Terrence Malick made a modern day version of Django Unchained it would look something like this. Hajdu uses the hot sun and bleak landscape to bring a sense of madness to the proceedings. He re-interprets the notion of the Wild West as not only a place of violence, but one of psychological struggle as well.
While the climatic shootout towards the end of the film feels a tad too measured, by that point it is already clear what Mirage truly is. Similar to the reluctant hero at its core, the film wants to create its own path regardless of what others think. It cares little for hitting all the familiar beats of the genre. Instead, Szabolcs Hajdu’s film is more interested in exploring the poetic elements that make westerns so fascinating in the first place.