Tag Archives: Supernatural Westerns

Diablo

Nicholas Chennault ~ March 3, 2016

Diablo—Scott Eastwood, Adam Beach, Walton Goggins, Danny Glover, Camilla Belle, (2015; Dir: Lawrence Roeck)

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It has been almost 25 years since Clint Eastwood, the greatest western star (see our post on Shooting Stars 1) since John Wayne, appeared in his last western, the impressive Unforgiven.  Now in his 80s, he is still working, but it seems doubtful he will ever appear in or direct another western.  Now comes his son Scott Eastwood (formerly known as Scott Reeves; his parents weren’t married) in his first western.  He has appeared in other movies (Fury and The Longest Ride, for example), and it appears that he may be a real actor.  Part of the enjoyment in watching this intensely psychological western is looking for those moments when Eastwood’s hair, the angles in his face and, just occasionally, his way of speaking remind one of his father.  It seems apparent from the movie posters that a little tweaking was done there to emphasize any resemblance to his father’s appearance.

As a psychological western with a significant twist, be warned:  there will be spoilers regarding that twist.  Read no farther if you don’t want to know it.  The movie develops slowly, and we are almost an hour into a short movie (83 minutes in total) before the plot starts to develop its point.  It begins with an action scene, of Mexican night raiders burning a ranch belonging to Jackson (Scott Eastwood) and abducting his wife Alexandra (or Alexsandra, which seems an unlikely way to spell it).  This is Colorado Territory in 1872; the titles inform us that it is seven years after the Civil War, so we assume that will play some role in the film.  Jackson assumes that the raiders have taken the “South Trail” toward New Mexico, and he follows.

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Jackson (Scott Eastwood) follows on the wintry “South Trail.”

As the story develops and he follows deeper into the wintry mountains, two elements become apparent. Jackson is not very trail-wise, being taken unawares by an Indian boy whom he allows to escape, and being jumped by an itinerant Chinese trader and then by Ezra (Walton Goggins), a possibly deranged man claiming to own the road.  Ezra gratuitously kills the trader and threatens to kill Jackson.  It also becomes obvious that Jackson should, in addition to his rifle, be wearing a sidearm, since he gets taken by surprise so often when he doesn’t have the rifle.  When he finally does see the Mexican party at a distance, one of them shoots him.  Dying, he is visited again by Ezra and awakens to find himself in a teepee being attended by the Indian boy’s father Nakoma (Adam Beach).  They give him peyote, and it is revealed in a gruesome scene that Jackson accidentally killed his younger brother during the late war.  The Indians drive him out, and as he goes, Ezra appears and shoots several of them.

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Jackson (Scott Eastwood) meets the volatile Ezra (Walton Goggins).

[Spoilers begin in earnest.]  The wounded Jackson visits Benjamin Carver (Danny Glover), a black man he knew during the war who now lives with his granddaughter in the mountains.  Carver offers to help, but is clearly afraid of Jackson, referring to Jackson’s service under Gen. Sherman as a killer and killing his own brother.  It now starts to become obvious that Ezra is Jackson’s alter ego, and that Jackson is a deranged killer, probably unhinged by killing his brother.  He is now using a pistol and moving like he knows very well how to use it.

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Jackson (Scott Eastwood) encounters Alexsandra (Camille Belle) at a stream.

He finds the Mexicans, and approaches Alexsandra at a stream.  She flees from him in terror, and the Mexicans bolt for the south.  They come to an extensive hacienda/homestead and prepare for Jackson’s arrival.  He kills several of them, using the pistol with great efficiency and ferocity.  Invading the house, he finds himself in the same room with Alexsandra, who pleads with him to leave her in peace with the father of her children and then shoots him in fear.  She flees to the next room, and a badly wounded but still ferocious Jackson appears at the door.  The movie ends with a close-up of Jackson in freeze frame, but the soundtrack continues, making it sound like he shoots Alexsandra’s husband and perhaps Alexsandra herself.  Jackson is the “Diablo” of the title.

This movie won the Best Feature award at the 2015 San Diego Film Festival.  Subsequent audiences have not generally been so fond of it, perhaps because of its slow initial development and its bleak, nihilistic ending.  Scott Eastwood is an attractive young man and a decent actor, although not as good as Walton Goggins (Cowboys & Aliens, Django Unchained, The Hateful Eight), who is downright scary as the murderous half of his mind.  Camille Belle, as the young Mexican woman Jackson may have abducted himself before the film began, has very little film time but does well enough with it.  We needed a little more backstory on Jackson earlier in the movie to avoid losing patience with the story; the sense is that it wasn’t quite playing fair and delayed the real developments in the story too long.

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Eastwoods, pere et fils.

The film was shot in color in Alberta, as many westerns are these days.  The cinematography (by Dean Cundey) of the wintry landscape is beautiful, although it is not entirely clear what the season is and why some places are snowier than others, making it seem capricious.  The overhead shots of Jackson riding through the scenic landscape may be overdone.  This is the second film for director-producer Lawrence Roeck, who co-wrote it.  Overall, the movie is not as watchable a western as it could have been, but it shows some promise.  Rated R for violence.

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The Warrior’s Way

Nicholas Chennault ~ August 13, 2014

The Warrior’s Way—Dong-gun Jang, Kate Bosworth, Geoffrey Rush, Danny Huston, Tony Cox (2010; Dir: Sngmoo Lee)

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And now for something completely different:  A stylized Korean-made martial arts movie set in a ghoulish American West, complete with surreal circus, a dwarf, hordes of despicable outlaw thugs and invincible Asian assassins.  It was made in New Zealand, a truly international production.

“You are an assassin.  All you love, you will destroy.”

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Swordsman Yang (Dong-gun Jang) and the baby he names April.

Yang (Dong-gun Jang), a member of the Sad Flutes clan of assassins, has made himself into the greatest swordsman in the world.  As this movie starts, he has been instructed to kill all his enemies in a rival clan, but, finding himself lonely and bored with the life of an invincible assassin, he deliberately does not kill a baby girl and thus incurs the wrath of his own clan.  As they attempt to kill him, he and the baby leave the shores of his own country for the deserts of the American West, arriving in the town of Lode, “the Paris of the West.”  It is practically a ghost town, home only to the crumbling remnants of a circus, with its aging performers, and a few others, including Lynne (Kate Bosworth), a comely young woman who aspires to become a knife thrower but has accuracy problems.

Yang is looking for an old friend, who appears to have run the laundry in Lode before his death the previous year.  The unofficial mayor of the town is Eight-Ball (Tony Cox), a former circus performer and dwarf.  Yang would take over the laundry, but he doesn’t know how.  Lynne teaches him, and they develop a relationship and mutual respect of sorts.

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Lynne (Kate Bosworth) and a coterie of aging circus performers.

Yang:  “We are called Sad Flutes because when you cut the throat, the last sound is like a sad flute.”
Lynne:  “Dang!  Skinny, you sure know how to throw a dang cat in a party room, don’t ya.”

[Spoilers follow.]  By flashback, Lynne’s story is told, of how an invading band of outlaws led by the Colonel (Danny Huston) took over the town.  Lynne resisted his appetites for young females and escaped.  In doing so, she gave the Colonel massive facial burns and caused the death of her entire family.  Indeed, she was left for dead, too.  As is usually the case with such gangs, they will return (as was the case in The Magnificent Seven, for example).  Lynne wants to be ready, and Yang teaches her how to focus, and miraculously she becomes an expert at throwing knives and, with a little training, using short swords.

When the gang returns a second time, Lynne almost gets the Colonel, but he escapes.  He returns a third time with an even larger and nastier band of thugs.  Yang must defend his new home, and, in taking the seal off his sword, reveals his location to the Sad Flutes who are hunting him.  (Their leader can hear the voices of those Yang has killed with the sword when it is unsealed.)  With their arrival, a three-way battle follows.  The townspeople are organized to use dynamite strategically, along with the sharpshooting talents of aging marksman Ronald (Geoffry Rush).

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Marksman Ronald (Geoffrey Rush) takes aim.

The battle goes along formulaic lines, with the numerous outlaws being whittled down in picturesque fashion and also the Sad Flutes.  Several of the circus people are killed, too, including Eight-Ball as he tries to protect the baby.  Yang fights his way into the hotel, dispatching the Colonel’s remaining henchmen.  And when the Colonel threatens the baby he now holds,  Yang gets her back.  He otherwise leaves the Colonel to Lynne.  After an extended battle, she kills the unrepentant Colonel with his own sword.

The final part of the extended showdown is between Yang and his former master on a short hill outside of town.  Although Yang is the ultimate victor, his victory is not final in the sense that the remaining Sad Flutes are still hunting him.  He leaves the baby with Lynne and walks off into the glorious sunset with his sword.  In the movie’s final scene in the Arctic,  Yang finishes off yet another assassin with a frozen fish and goes off in search of another refuge.  The baby’s pacifier is a token on the guard of his sword.

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Yang rescues baby April from the Colonel (Danny Huston)

Lynne:  “Do we win?”
Yang:  “We survived.  Some of us.”

The movie is shot with a strong sense of style by first-time director Sngmoo Lee.  The movie is about action rather than plot, but there’s enough of each so that you’ll find it enjoyable if you have any taste for Asian martial arts films.  The body count is of course remarkably high, but as such things go, it is not unusually gory.  It is, for example, more restrained than Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill movies.  It is rated R for violence and occasional other distasteful elements, so it is not for young people.  It may be the best movie of its kind, though; it may also be the only movie of its kind among westerns.  There is an undercurrent of humor beneath it all.

The cast is quite good.  Dong-gun Jang is excellent as the swordsman Yang, although he is not required to show a great acting range.  Kate Bosworth and Geoffrey Rush are good in their parts; Rush is also the narrator at the beginning and end of the film.  Danny Huston, son of legendary director-actor John Huston and half-brother to Anjelica Huston, is kind of over-the-top as the principal villain, but that seems intentional and part of the overall stylized effect.  Tony Cox (Bad Santa) as the dwarf in charge does well, too.

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Shot in color in New Zealand, at 100 minutes.  It did not do well at the box office, costing $42 million to make and bringing in only $5,664,000 in the U.S.  If you’d like to see Asian martial arts in other westerns, check out the Jackie Chan-Owen Wilson comedies Shanghai Noon (2000) and Shanghai Knights (2003).  But they’re really not the same thing.

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High Plains Drifter

Nicholas Chennault ~ June 9, 2014

High Plains Drifter—Clint Eastwood, Verna Bloom, Marianna Hill, Billy Curtis, Geoffrey Lewis (1973; Dir:  Clint Eastwood)

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Ben Manciewicz referred to this as an “allegorical morality tale,” heavily laced with understated mysticism.  It was the second movie directed by Clint Eastwood, his first western as a director, and the movie by Eastwood that most overtly shows the influence of Sergio Leone, one of his mentors.

This first shot is Leone-esque, with a lone rider approaching the camera from a distance through a haze.  (There will be a bookend of that shot at the end of the movie, with the lone rider leaving at a distance into a similar haze.)  Clint Eastwood is the Mysterious Stranger, one of his specialties, and, as with the earlier Leone trilogy, he is never really named.  He rides into the mining town of Lago (“Lake”), where the general vibe is fearful and unfriendly.  After an initial drink, he goes to get a shave and bath.  At the barber shop, three thugs insult and attack him until he shoots all three of them.  Outside he is repeatedly insulted by Callie Travers (Marianna Hill); he drags her into a stable and rapes her, although she appears to get into it.

HighPlainsEastwThe Mysterious Stranger rides in.

The name Billy Borders is mentioned to the Stranger:  “Don’t know the man,’ he confesses.  “You didn’t have much time to,” the sheriff replies, “because you shot him yesterday.  Billy, he wasn’t a loved man.  He didn’t have much personality and what he did have was all bad.”

It turns out that the three thugs had been hired by the town to defend it against three outlaws (Stacey Bridges and the Carlin brothers) being released from the territorial prison, and whom the town suspects harbor resentments against the citizens of Lago for sending them to prison.  Now the citizens approach the stranger to defend them, promising him anything in town that he wants.  He puts that to the test, giving blankets and candy to Indians and taking new boots for himself, and requiring the town to paint all building and structures red.  He appoints the town dwarf Mordecai (Billy Curtis) sheriff and mayor.  As he sleeps, the Stranger dreams of a man with a badge being whipped to death by three men with bullwhips.  Various townspeople refer to young Marshal Duncan, who was killed by being whipped to death.  There is some kind of collective guilt in their past related to this event.  The Marshal had discovered that the basis of the town’s prosperity, a mine, was actually on government land and not on the private property owned by the town.  He was going to report this to the authorities, so no one felt obliged to intervene when he met his vicious end.  His body is now lying outside the town in an unmarked grave: “They say the dead don’t rest without a marker of some kind…  He’s the reason this town’s afraid of strangers.”  The Stranger sees it differently:  “It’s what people know about themselves inside that makes them afraid.”

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The Stranger is not a typical western hero, but a morally ambiguous man given to cruelty.  He also rapes Sara Belding, who deserves it even less than Callie Travers, but who similarly seems to get into it.  Some of the townspeople turn on the Stranger, and he blows up three who try to kill him in his hotel room.  He shoots and wounds at least one of another group of assailants, who escapes out of town only to be killed by the three approaching outlaws.  The Stranger sets up the town’s defenses but leaves before the outlaws arrive.

Mordecai:  “What happens after?

The Stranger:  “Hmm?”

Mordecai:  “What do we do when it’s over?”

The Stranger:  “Then you live with it.”

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Lago, now painted bright red, waiting for the outlaws.

[Spoilers of a sort follow.]  The citizens are unable to carry out the Stranger’s plan, and the three outlaws take over, with several of the townspeople being shot or otherwise killed.  With much of the town in flames, as the outlaws drink in the saloon a whip comes out of the night and drags out one outlaw standing near the bat-wing doors.  Sounds of him being whipped to death are heard, and we see his body lying in the street.  As the two remaining outlaws hunt the source of the whip, it comes from above, wraps around the neck of one and lifts him off the ground, hanging him.  That leaves only the outlaw leader Stacey Bridges (Geoffrey Lewis), who sees the long-coated stranger, pulls a gun on him and is shot several times for his pains.

As the Stranger leaves Lago, he passes the sign where the town name “Lago” has been painted over in red with “Hell.”  Mordecai is putting the final touches on a tombstone in the local cemetery as the Stranger rides past.  Mordecai says, “I still don’t know your name,” and the Stranger responds, “Yes, you do.”  And the camera shows that Mordecai’s tombstone reads “Marshal Jim Duncan,” who no longer has an unmarked grave.  Among the other graves near Duncan’s are those of S. Leone, Donald Siegel and Brian G. Hutton (director of Where Eagles Dare and Kelly’s Heroes)–all directors of films Eastwood has appeared in to date.  The Stranger rides off into the haze, just as he came.

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Director Eastwood setting up a scene from the top of a red building; horsing around with Mordecai (Billy Curtis) behind the scenes.

The identity of the Stranger is left ambiguous.  One version of the script had him as Duncan’s brother, but Eastwood liked the ambiguity of not being too explicit and took that reference out.  The Stranger is a figure of heartless retribution for crimes left mostly vague, not an admirable hero.  Echoes of this Stranger will reappear in kinder and more sympathetic form in Eastwood’s Pale Rider more than a decade later.  The camera work (the long shots of lone riders, the frequent tight 2/3-face closeups) are reminiscent of the spaghetti westerns that made Eastwood’s movie career, as are other surreal touches, such as the dwarf.  The heavy ambient noises (the hoofs of the Stranger’s horse, the constant sound of the wind, the disproportionately loud jangle of the Stranger’s spurs, for example) also make it seem like a spaghetti western.  It is the most existential and supernatural of Eastwood’s works as director.  While not his strongest western, it’s a cult favorite in some circles.

It confirmed him on his path to becoming a major director.  He brought High Plains Drifter in two days ahead of schedule and under budget, and it was one of the highest-grossing westerns of the 1970s.  His next western would be the classic The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976).  He was a bright spot in a decade not otherwise known for westerns.  His star was rising as John Wayne’s was fading (The Cowboys [1972] and The Shootist [1976]).  Shot on location at California’s eerie Mono Lake, 300 miles from Los Angeles on the Nevada border.  Bruce Surtees was the cinematographer.  Written by Ernest Tidyman (Shaft, The French Connection).  105 minutes.

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Cowboys & Aliens

Nicholas Chennault ~ February 1, 2014

Cowboys & Aliens—Daniel Craig, Harrison Ford, Sam Rockwell, Olivia Wilde, Keith Carradine, Clancy Brown, Adam Beach, Paul Dano, Walton Goggins, Raoul Trujillo, Noah Ringer (2011; Dir:  Jon Favreau)

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Somehow the ampersand (“&”) emphasizes the high-concept nature of how the seemingly-incompatible science fiction and western elements of this movie were all put together.  And it seems to downplay the fact that there’s an interesting story and some pretty good acting going on here.  Based on a 2006 graphic novel by Scott Mitchell Rosenberg, the title is pretty straightforward about going to the heart of what’s involved here.  But maybe it’s too simplistic, and it suggests a lightness of tone that isn’t present in the film.

It’s 1873 in the Arizona Territory desert.  A man (Daniel Craig) wakes up with no knowledge of who he is or how he got there, but he has a non-bullet wound in his side.  When three miscreants decide to rob him, he demonstrates a high level of skill with violence.  They donate clothes, a hat, mount and arms to him instead.  He rides off to find medical help for his wound, which he has no idea how he received.

In the tiny town of Absolution, he gets treated by Meacham (Clancy Brown), a local preacher/doctor.  As he goes out to get his bearings, he encounters young Percy Dolarhyde (Paul Dano), son of the local cattle baron, terrorizing the few inhabitants and shooting randomly, and makes short work of him.  Entering the saloon, he interests Ella Swenson (Olivia Wilde), who is drawn to the large high-tech bracelet he’s wearing.  Soon enough the sheriff (Keith Carradine) comes in with several deputies and suggests that the unknown man at the bar is in fact Jake Lonergan, a wanted outlaw and gang leader.  He successfully resists capture, expertly and without killing anybody, until Ella hits him over the head from behind.

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That evening, while Jake and Percy are loaded into a cage wagon for transport to the county seat, the town is attacked by flying vehicles that start to nab certain of the inhabitants, including the sheriff, Maria, wife of Doc the saloonkeeper, and Percy.  Jake’s bracelet comes to life and he blasts one of the vehicles with it, ending the attack.  Col. Woodrow Dolarhyde, Percy’s father, insists that Jake accompany them in pursuit of the invaders.  He goes his own way.

The next day Jake encounters a scruffy band of outlaws, who are apparently his former colleagues.  He reasserts his leadership by blasting with his bracelet the big ugly thug who has taken over in his absence.  Jake starts to have flashbacks involving a mystical hummingbird and a dark-haired young woman who resembles, but at the same time is clearly not, Ella.  

As matters develop, the invaders are after the same thing as the outlaws:  gold, which may power their large ship, now mostly hidden in a canyon.  After a brief and unsuccessful daylight scrap with the aliens, the outlaws are ready to run for Mexico.  A band of Chiricahua Apaches are also searching for stolen loved ones.  And Jake and Ella take down one of the flying craft, at the cost of perhaps a mortal wound to Ella.

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Taken to the Apache camp for whatever help she can get, Ella in fact regenerates and explains that she is not, strangely enough, from earth but is the last survivor of a planet devastated by these invaders.  She wants Jake’s help in stopping them, but he still can’t remember anything, until he takes an Indian potion.  Then he remembers (a) he and the young dark-haired woman were captured by the aliens, (b) how he got the wound in his side, (c) he escaped wearing the bracelet-weapon, and (d) the location of the alien ship in the canyon.

[Spoilers follow.]  Jake, Col. Dolarhyde and the Apaches put together an unlikely coalition of outlaws, Indians and the few remaining townsfolk to fight the aliens.  Jake and a few outlaws climb the outside of the ship and throw dynamite into the ship’s landing bay, provoking retaliatory attacks outside the ship, which is what they want.  While most fight the invaders, Jake and Ella sneak into the ship and find the chamber where the remaining captives are held.  The young dark-haired woman is not among them.  Jake and Ella release the captives and fight their way to the central core of the ship, where Ella takes the bracelet and goes to destroy the ship at its power source.  Jake is trapped by the alien who gave him his wound, until Dolarhyde helps him.

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Finally, Arizona Territory (and, incidentally, earth) are saved from the alien menace.  The colonel forgives Jake for the previous theft of his gold, since more gold has been discovered in the fight and the railroad will be coming through and bringing yet more new gold.  Jake rides on, having lost two loves, gained a sense of community in Absolution and apparently but not certainly having mended at least some of his outlaw ways.

Daniel Craig is impressive as Jake Lonergan, just as he is as James Bond.  He works in the western setting, and one would like to see him in more westerns.  Olivia Wilde is very good as a sexy alien, in what may be her best performance to date.  Harrison Ford is appropriately gruff and domineering as Col. Woodrow Dolarhyde.  Many of the supporting roles are played very well by Paul Dano (the feckless Percy Dolarhyde), Sam Rockwell (saloonkeeper Doc), Clancy Brown (the Reverend Meachum), Adam Beach (Nat Colorado, Col. Dolarhyde’s Apache foster son), Walton Goggins (one of Jake’s outlaws), Noah Ringer (the sheriff’s grandson) and Raoul Trujillo (the Apache chief Black Knife).

CowboysAliensFavreauFavreau directing Craig.

It is well known that this was a box-office disappointment, falling $34 million short of making back its production costs during its domestic theatrical run.  It has been less well known that this is a fun and enjoyable movie if accepted on its own terms, skillfully directed with a very good cast and an interesting, if not entirely believable or consistent, story to tell and many of the traditional trappings of western stories.  It has a high degree of re-watchability; the well-staged fights and action sequences hold up pretty well.  The ending seems to have contemplated the possibility of a sequel, but the poor box office returns make that unlikely.  Still, if you’re game for a decent supernatural western, you could do a lot worse.  As of March 2014, an extended cut of the film was released on DVD, if you want more of it.

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Jonah Hex

Nicholas Chennault ~ January 27, 2014

Jonah Hex—Josh Brolin, John Malkovich, Megan Fox, Michael Fassbender (2010; Dir:  Jimmy Heyward)

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Doomed/haunted/scarred/supernatural Confederate veteran Jonah Hex (Josh Brolin) has a past, to put it mildly.  In the late Civil War he “betrayed” the unprincipled Col. Quentin Turnbull (John Malkovich), who was about to burn a hospital.  Hex shot Turnbull’s son Jeb, his own best friend, and aborted the hospital torching.  Turnbull subsequently returned the favor by forcing Hex to watch while his own family burned alive, and his own face was branded. 

JonahHexBrolinBrolin in Hex makeup.

Kept alive by Crow Indians, the near-death experience has left him able to talk with the dead, a useful talent in his new profession as bounty hunter.  As long as he maintains physical contact with a corpse, he can temporarily resurrect and communicate with the dead, bringing the corpse physically and mentally back to its condition prior to death.  Hunting Turnbull, he discovers that the Colonel has died in a hotel fire.

Now, more than ten years after the Civil War, Hex finds that Turnbull is still alive and planning high-tech atrocities for the 1876 centennial of U.S. independence from Britain.  Hex digs up the decayed corpse of Jeb Turnbull at Gettsyburg.  After a difficult interview, Jeb discloses that his father is at the improbably-named Fort Resurrection.  Hex himself has a taste for out-of-the-ordinary weaponry and overcomes numerous obstacles and setbacks to foil Turnbull’s plot and defeat not only Turnbull but quasi-supernatural bad guys, with only the help of Lilah (or Tallulah, played by Megan Fox), a sympathetic whore in the Angelina Jolie-action heroine mode who looks and acts very 21st-century.

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Unconventional weaponry: repeating dynamite crossbows.

At Fort Resurrection, Hex sees Turnbull’s new steampunk-style weapons but is badly wounded by Burke, an Irish assassin employed by Turnbull, who escapes.  His Crow friends heal Hex again, and the pursuit is resumed.  Hex kills Burke, but Turnbull has captured Lilah and forces Hex to surrender.  As they are held prisoner on Turnbull’s weapon-ship, Lilah picks the locks on their manacles.  Together, they put a fiery end to Turnbull’s plans and to Turnbull himself.

The plot is something we’ve seen lots of times before, sometimes in epically bad and overblown movies (e.g., The Wild Wild West).  This is pretty bad, too, if not quite epically, mixing the modern, the fictional-steampunk and the 19th-century without much consistency.  This deserved a much better story, and Josh Brolin in particular is a better actor than this material allows him to demonstrate.  John Malcovich can be a very good actor, but that’s not in evidence here.  Michael Fassbender shows up before he became a big name, as the heavily (and anachronistically) tattooed Irish assassin Burke.  (The tattooing seems to have been used as a substitute for actual characterization.)  There was a lot of talent used badly in this film.  It’s said that Brolin initially did not like the script but came to appreciate its tongue-in-cheek tone.  His first instinct was right.  The character and situations are intriguing enough that this could have been interesting with a better story and script.  But it mostly isn’t. The music, by heavy metal band Mastodon, doesn’t help much.

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Michael Fassbender as the heavily-tattooed assassin Burke.

This is based on a DC comic series, another bad sign.  During its domestic theatrical run, Jonah Hex grossed only $10.5 million back on a $47 million budget, officially making it a box office bomb.  Director Jimmy Heyward was a former animator at Pixar who worked on the first two Toy Story movies, which would seem to have little in common with this material.  Relatively short, at about 80+ minutes.  Often visually dark and eye-straining.  If you’re looking for a supernatural western, Cowboys & Aliens is significantly better.

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Purgatory

Nicholas Chennault ~ November 30, 2013

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)

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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. 

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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.  

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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.

purgatory4 Taking on the bad guys.

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.

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At the cemetery: Holliday (Randy Quaid), James (J.D. Souther), Hickok (Sam Shepard), and Billy (Donnie Walberg).

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-religous figure in his last western.

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Ravenous

Nicholas Chennault ~ November 1, 2013

Ravenous—Guy Pearce, Robert Carlyle, Jeffrey Jones, David Arquette, Neal McDonough (1999; Dir:  Antonia Bird)

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Okay, so this isn’t primarily a western; it’s a horror thriller.  But it takes place in the Sierra Nevadas on the California-Nevada border not too long after the Mexican-American War of the 1840s—roughly the time of the Donner Party.  And it has other echoes of the Donner Party and its cannibalism as well.  It features a vampire-like creature from Indian mythology called a wendigo.  And this strange brew all works.

This movie was obviously not made with a large budget.  Although it has a good cast, that cast is composed almost entirely of character actors.  Guy Pearce, one of the leads, had done LA Confidential two years previously, but had not yet made The Count of Monte Cristo and Memento, among other successes for which he subsequently became well-known.  Robert Carlyle (The Full Monty, Eragon), the other lead, is very effective.  And the movie works surprisingly well for what it is, although it doesn’t use traditional western themes much.  There’s a fair amount of black humor in this, but it’s not a comedy—at least not a conventional comedy.  It has become something of a cult favorite, although it’s clearly not to every taste.

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Lt. John Boyd (Pearce) is promoted for a supposed act of heroism in the Mexican War, which was actually the result of cowardice.  He is then sent (exiled) to Fort Spencer, a remote and primitive post in the western Sierras, where he finds an ill-assorted group of seven others:  soldiers led by Col. Hart (Jeffrey Jones), Indians and hangers-on  Eventually the group includes …Colquhoun/Ives (Carlyle), a half-dead traveler who arrives with a story about his small party of emigrants from the east, in which he was forced to resort to cannibalism to survive after it became lost.  But it’s not entirely clear who or what else he is or may be.  As the inhabitants of the small post start disappearing one by one, Boyd is forced to summon some of the courage that he lacked during the late war.  In the words of Roger Ebert, “There are surprises and revelations, and unspeakable things happen to some of the characters, or at least we think they do.”

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Boyd and Colquhoun/Ives reasoning things out.

Director Antonia Bird was British and is also one of the few female directors of westerns (see also Nancy Kelly’s A Thousand Pieces of Gold and Kelly Reichardt’s Meek’s Cutoff).  She may have had little inherent interest in westerns, and this isn’t very western in anything but time and setting.  She was also a vegetarian, and maybe this film explains why.  (Pearce was also a vegetarian, according to Carlyle’s commentary on the DVD.)  She was great at cultivating the feeling of cold, primitive conditions and isolation that makes this film so atmospheric.  Bird died at 54 in October 2013.  

RavenousPearceJones Boyd and Hart hunting …what?

Screenwriter Ted Griffin lists the story of Alferd G. Packer of Colorado, as recounted in a couple of paragraphs of Dashiell Hammett’s novel The Thin Man, as one of his inspirations for Carlyle’s character.  The film was shot in the Czech Republic and Slovakia, with some scenes in Durango, Mexico.  It’s rated R for its considerable gore and violence.  The movie features an unusual soundtrack by Michael Nyman and Damon Albarn, which most find to be quite effective.  The film was not a success at the time of its 1999 release, making only $2 million back on its budget of $12 million.  But it has since gathered a cult following.  It had mixed reviews, but Roger Ebert gave it three out of four stars.  Ravenous is the kind of movie where you savor the texture of the filmmaking, even when the story strays into shapeless gore.”  So much gore, in fact, that they ran out of fake blood during the climactic fight scene. 

For another horror western, see The Burrowers.  For another western featuring a supposed wendigo, see The Lone Ranger (2013).

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