Purgatory—Sam Shepard, Eric Roberts, Donnie Wahlberg, J.D. Souther, Randy Quaid, Peter Stormare, Brad Rowe, Amelia Heinle, R.G. Armstrong (Made for television, 1999; Dir: Uli Edel)
Much more watchable than the premise and the fact that it was made for television would suggest. Despicable outlaw Blackjack Britton (Eric Roberts in his evil mode) and his numerous gang rob a bank in the town of Sweetwater, killing a number of citizens and soldiers in the process. Pursued closely by a posse into the desert heading for Mexico, they get lost in a storm and emerge into a green valley and a small town. They enter the town of Refuge and are welcomed, bemused by the fact that the sheriff (Sam Shepard) doesn’t wear a gun and asks them not to curse. Meanwhile, they get free booze and accommodations, but, given their predilections, that’s not enough for them.
The gang’s segundo, Cavin Guthrie (Peter Stormare, recognizable from Fargo), is if anything even more despicable than Blackjack, but he’s hampered by his green nephew, Sonny Dillard (Brad Rowe), an avid reader of dime novels. Sonny fancies he starts to recognize some of the town’s characters. The sheriff bears a resemblance to Wild Bill Hickok; the town doctor (Randy Quaid) seems like he could be Doc Holliday; the storekeeper (J.D. Souther) seems like Jesse James; and the impetuous deputy (Donnie Wahlberg) like Billy the Kid. And Sonny is taken with Rose (Amelia Heinle), a young lady of the town. They all seem to spend an unusual amount of time in church.
Eric Roberts as the loathsome Blackjack Britton; Brad Rowe as Sonny Dillard.
[Spoilers follow.] Not seeing any viable resistance, Blackjack loosens the controls on his men and they start tearing the place up. Among them, Cavin develops plans to molest Rose. Meanwhile, Sonny finds himself identifying more with the townsfolk than with the miscreants he rode in with. He discovers Rose has a hanging scar around her neck; she was Betty McCullough, the first woman hung in Arizona Territory, at age 19 for killing her father with a meat cleaver after he had molested her for seven years. [Note: Betty McCullough seems to be a fictional creation, not an actual historical character.] She does not encourage Sonny’s attentions, and describes the setup of Refuge: they are there as a place of repentance and reformation after living questionable lives. If they succeed in reforming, they get to move on to heaven in due course. In fact, the sheriff is due to leave in a couple of days after ten years in Refuge. But they can’t return to their former vices and violence, or they’ll go the way of the truly damned. And they’ve spent years reforming in Refuge.
Finally, the gang plans to leave in the morning and burn the town down, having their way with whomever they feel like. Sonny tries to get the sheriff and townsfolk to resist, but that would be violating the rules of their probation. Finally, he declares that even if they won’t help him, he’ll defend Rose and the town the best he can. There are more than 16 in the gang against him, and he’s not that good with a gun. The question is less what will happen than how it will happen, and what will follow from it.
The uneasy sheriff (Sam Shepard) and his impetuous young deputy (Donnie Wahlberg).
This is about choices, and not easy ones. Sonny has drifted into some bad choices in the past, and he’s choosing where (and with whom) his future will lie. He chooses to give Rose something she’s never had: somebody to stick up for her. For the four, it’s different. They made bad choices in the past as well, or at least some that played to their violent skills and strengths, and they’re having to choose where they want their strengths to be long term. Ultimately they go, as we knew they must, with what feels right in the moment, despite having lost some of those skills they valued in life.
Hickok concludes that he’s been thinking too much about his own good and shortcomings, and straps on his two guns, handles forward. Even Blackjack recognizes that. Similarly Jesse and Billy put on their guns, and even Doc takes a hand. Unlike Sonny, they probably can’t be killed (since they’re already dead), but they have just put themselves in line for eternal damnation and given up any hope for redemption. In the extended shootout all the outlaws but Cavin and Blackjack are taken out (these four defenders are really good, and they move well).
Sonny stands up with his dime-novel heroes and plays his part, but he’s clearly out of his league, both with his deceased colleagues and against his former outlaw friends. Finally, it comes down to just Hickok, who is putting away his guns after the showdown, and Blackjack, who won’t take no for an answer. It isn’t even close. Sonny discovers that he has mortal wounds but somehow isn’t dead—or if he is, he’s now a resident of Refuge like everybody else.
The four and Sonny present themselves at the cemetery, where they expect the old Indian Chiron figure (Saginaw Grant) will conduct them to hell. As they prepare to enter, the eternal stagecoach pulls up. It is driven by R.G. Armstrong, who says that the Creator takes their self-sacrifice for what it seems to be, and they can now all get in. Sonny, too, but he declares he wants to stay. Hickok passes the badge to him, and the coach takes off.
This is better done than we have any right to expect. The writing is good, by Gordon Dawson, a long-time television writer with experience on The Rockford Files and Bret Maverick, among many other things. The pacing is good while the premise develops, presumably the work of the director Uli Gellen, a German television veteran. The social attitudes are not unbearably anachronistic. We could wish that this were in widescreen, but mostly made-for-television westerns weren’t in 1999.
The cast is very good for such an enterprise, especially Sam Shepard as Hickok. Brad Rowe is also surprisingly good as Sonny; if we don’t care enough about him, this story loses a lot of its punch. Eric Roberts can do evil in his sleep, and he does exactly what’s required of him. Peter Stromare is a little over the top as the evil Segundo uncle, but it works. Randy Quaid is a little broad as Holliday; we’re aware that others, including his brother Dennis, have played Holliday more elegantly. Souther is lacking in charisma as Jesse James. Given the balances of this, the film has to depict horrible evil convincingly without showing it too explicitly, and it does that well. It’s one of the best things of its kind, although it’s hard to think of very many other things of its kind. Usually a high concept supernatural premise like this would find a lot of ways to be irritating, and this is actually quite watchable and involving. One could quibble about Billy the Kid and Jesse James as candidates for redemption, but what the heck. This deserves to be better known.
There are a couple of echoes of other westerns, particularly Ride the High Country. There is a reference to Hickok’s upcoming “entering his house justified.” And of course, the presence of R.G. Armstrong, often cast as a religious fanatic in Peckinpah films (High Country, Major Dundee), here used as a much cheerier sort of quasi-religious figure in his last western.