Greetings again from the darkness. Don’t mess with the smart ones, as brains often outlast brawn. I’m conflicted on how best to describe this film. Perhaps … It’s nuanced storytelling at its finest. Jane Campion won an original screenplay Oscar for THE PIANO (1993), while also becoming only the second woman to receive a nomination as Best Director. This is her 8th feature film to direct, and the first since the underrated BRIGHT STAR (2009). Ms. Campion is such a smooth filmmaker, and her latest is so expertly crafted and so beautifully filmed, that some may find themselves not recognizing the underlying tension between characters. I urge you to remain diligent and take note of the subtle gestures and facial expressions, as the emotions run deep.
Benedict Cumberbatch stars as Phil Burbank. He runs a successful cattle ranch with his brother George, played by Jesse Plemons. Though they sleep in the same room and have been driving cattle together for 25 years, the brothers couldn’t be less alike. George is a soft-spoken man with few needs or aspirations other than wishing to not grow old alone. He lives in the shadow of his formidable brother, an educated man with a domineering personality. Phil is constantly proving how tough and macho he is by bullying others, even calling his more sensitive brother “Fatso”. That thundering you hear is Phil purposefully slamming his heels into the wood floors so that his spurs never stop jangling.
Phil is playing a game that only he knows the rules to. George bows his head in shame as he hears Phil belittle the frail and effeminate teenage Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee), who is waiting on their table at the Red Mill. Peter’s widowed mother Rose (Kirsten Dunst) owns the place, and after George provides some comfort to her, George and Rose secretly marry. Viewing this as a personal affront, Phil is merciless in his cruelty towards Rose and Peter. It turns out that Phil is masquerading as one thing in order to hide another truth. An intriguing sequence (that is so well acted I could watch it 10 times) leads to a warming of the relationship between Phil and Peter. The two bond over horseback riding, rope-braiding, and stories of Phil’s now-deceased ‘mentor’, Bronco Henry.
This setting is 1925 Montana, though it’s filmed in New Zealand. The majestic mountain range constantly looms on the horizon. Yet despite the beauty, it’s a tough life made tougher by Phil’s menacing behavior – psychological torturing of Rose that leads her to the bottle – something that clearly holds unfavorable memories. The four leads are truly outstanding, and supporting work is provided by Thomasin McKenzie as the young housekeeper, and Keith Carradine, Frances Conroy, Allison Bruce, and Peter Carroll as uncomfortable guests at a dinner party.
Jonny Greenwood provides the music. It’s not so much a score as it is mood-enhancing messaging through guitars, violins, and pianos – each piece delivering just the right note. Cinematographer AriWegner (THE TRUE HISTORY OF THE KELLY GANG, 2019) works seamlessly with director Campion to capture the shifts in tone and the minutiae of the performances. An early shot through the kitchen windows captures Phil strutting through the ranch. The shot is repeated later with a contrasting look. The film is based on the 1967 novel by Thomas Savage, and it includes some of his personal experiences. Nothing haunts us more than the lingering effect of words Peter provides as narration near the film’s opening, when he informs us that a real man must save his mother. Oh yes, this is nuanced storytelling at its finest. By the way, you know how to whistle, don’t you?
Greetings again from the darkness. When asked to explain the appeal, many fans of Western movies note how the clear division of good and bad, and right and wrong, allows for easy identification of those to root for, or even admire. Writer-director Potsy Ponciroli muddies the water with this one, blurring the lines between good guys and bad guys, and keeping us guessing until the end.
The film opens in the Oklahoma territory in 1906, a mere seventeen years after the Land Rush of 1889. The farmer we meet, Henry McCarty (a perfectly chosen name) may or may not have been a ‘sooner’, but he admits to his son that the idea of free land is what drove him to settle here, on the plot next to his deceased wife’s brother Al (Trace Adkins). Tim Blake Nelson is superb in the role, and plays Henry as a man with deep, and likely dark secrets. The land is challenging to work and he expends energy farming as well as protecting his son Wyatt (Gavin Lewis), a typical whiny teenager with little regard for adult struggles. Wyatt is anxious to escape the structure and limitations of life with dad.
Breaking a long string of days where nothing much happens for Henry and Wyatt, an injured man with a satchel full of cash is discovered on their land. Henry patches up the gunshot wound, and puts the unconscious man in bed, albeit with ropes binding him to the frame – one of the glimpses of Henry cluing us to waters that run much deeper than we’d typically expect for a farmer in the middle of nowhere. When the man awakens, he claims to be Sheriff Curry (Scott Haze) and that the three men chasing him are the bad guys. The dilemma for Henry is heightened in that he’s not an inherently trusting fellow, and the Sheriff badge is actually on one the vest of those three men, Ketchum (a fun turn from Stephen Dorff).
The verbal exchanges between Henry and Ketchum are oratory poetry, and it makes for a juicy and tension-packed chain of events. We are left to deduce which of the men – Henry, Curry, and Ketchum – are who they say they are. It’s a game of Clue featuring rifles, holsters, and horses. Cinematographer John Matysiak does a nice job with a wide-range of shots: outdoors, in the cabin, the big shootout, and even a doorway shot as a tribute to John Ford.
The two twists are what really made this click for me. And one of them is quite a whopper. The suspense generated by the situation is certainly enhanced by the fancy verbal sparring, including a terrific line from Henry when asked about his background: “Many vocations, some more marginal than others.” But it really comes down to us as viewers, along with Henry, attempting to discern the good guys from the bad, and constantly asking ourselves … who do we trust? Mysteries are fun, especially when a good old-fashioned shootout is included, and the film’s big reveal turns out to be etched in western lore.
Greetings again from the darkness. The title is drawn from what the locals call the gap between the Texas-Mexico border and the fence/wall that must be crossed for those looking to make their way. The film is directed by Conor Allyn and was co-written by his brother Jake Allyn and David Barraza. Jake is also the lead actor.
Bill Greer (Frank Grillo, THE GREY, 2011) and his wife Monica (Andie MacDowell) live on a border ranch with their eldest son Lucas (Alex MacNicoll, ALL ROADS LEAD TO PEARLA, 2019). It’s not an easy life, as the illegal aliens who cross their land sometimes cut the barbed wire fence for access, allowing the Greer’s cattle to escape. Their son Jackson (Jake Allyn) is home from college. He’s a baseball prospect with a trip to New York scheduled to meet with the Yankees (it’s funny how baseball players in the movies so frequently play for the Yankees). While home, Jackson rides his beloved horse Sundance, and helps chase the illegal aliens off the ranch.
One night things go horribly wrong, and Jackson accidentally shoots Fernando, a young boy who is crossing with his father Gustavo (Jorge Jimenez). As viewers, we’ve seen the caring father, referred to as “The Shepherd”, protect his son from the drug dealers and coyotes. Jackson’s dad tries to take the blame for the shooting when interviewed by Texas Ranger Ramirez (George Lopez in a rare dramatic turn for the comedian), but Jackson can’t keep quiet and he bolts across the Rio Grande on Sundance.
As Jackson makes his way deeper into Mexico, he crosses paths with a heavily-tattooed blond coyote named Luis (Andres Delgado) – one who had previously tried to scam Gustavo and Fernando. In fact, Luis shows up more often than a bad penny throughout the story. He’s the one true villain, yet even he thinks he’s doing the right thing (at least sometimes). Jackson is mostly impressed with how nice everyone is, and he ends up working for Victoria (Esmerelda Pimentel) at her father’s horse ranch. It turns out, Jackson is a horse-whisperer, in addition to being a talented baseball pitcher.
Jackson decides he must beg forgiveness from Gustavo, not knowing Fernando’s father is simultaneously tracking him down in a quest for vengeance. Mr. Jimenez gives the film’s finest performance as he flips the switch (quietly, but effectively) from protective and loving father to vengeful man on a mission. The script is filled with clichés and contrivances, with Jackson playing the role of white guilt with an emphasis on cross-cultural empathy. Mexico, and its people, are not like what he expected or had been led to believe. An elevator ride, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and a rendezvous at a funeral are examples of scenes that induce cringes from us as viewers, but nothing too outrageous is included, and we are engaged enough to continue along on Jackson’s trip.
Greetings again from the darkness. Even in the midst of a pandemic, December is Oscar-qualifying time. And that means we get Tom Hanks’ latest movie. This time out, the two-time Oscar winner reunites with his CAPTAIN PHILLIPS (2013) director Paul Greengrass (three “Bourne” movies, and Oscar nominated for UNITED 93, 2006) for Hanks’ first ride into the western genre. Luke Davies (Oscar nominated for LION, 2016) adapted the screenplay from Paulette Jiles’ 2016 novel.
The beloved Mr. Hanks stars as Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd. We know his full name because he proudly announces it at each stop of his news-reading route. That’s right, even in 1870, which is before television and radio and internet, a person could earn a living reading the news. OK, so it wasn’t the millions that national anchors make these days, as he was dependent on the audience dropping a coin or two in the tin cup. For this they were treated to Captain Kidd’s robust presentation of news and events (and some gossip) from around the nation … straight from the news clippings he collected during his travels.
On the trail one day, Captain Kidd comes across a horrific scene of violence, and a 10 year old girl with a shock of blonde hair. She only speaks Kiowa, but the found paperwork lists her name as Johanna (the first American film for Helena Zengel). It turns out, tragic events in her family’s home many years earlier left Johanna being raised by the Kiowa Indians. Captain Kidd is now on a mission to return her to her surviving relatives (an aunt and uncle), but there are at least three obstacles to his plan: it’s a rigorous trip of about 400 miles, the girl doesn’t want to go, and there remains much tension in the split among the post-war citizenry. So what we have here is a western road trip (trail ride) that’s a blend of TRUE GRIT (minus the witty banter) and THE SEARCHERS.
It should be noted that Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd has served in three wars, including the recently concluded Civil War. He may make his living wearing bifocals and reading newspapers, but Kidd is no nerd. He handles pressure quite naturally, as we witness in chase scene up a rocky hill. The resulting shootout not only creates the first bond between Kidd and Johanna, but also flashes the Captain’s calming influence. This is a soulful and principled Tom Hanks (as usual), but this time he’s riding a horse and his furrowed brow is working overtime.
The trip to Johanna’s home coincidentally takes Kidd very close to where he once lived – a place that holds his best and worst memories. As viewers we see what Captain Kidd and Johanna don’t. They are both headed back to a past they no longer belong to. Along the way, the two travelers cross paths with characters played by Elizabeth Marvel, Ray McKinnon, Mare Winningham, and the always great Bill Camp. There is nothing rushed about the story or these people. Fans of director Greengrass will be surprised to find an absence of his trademark rapid-cut action sequences, but he has delivered a sweeping epic with superb cinematography (Dariusz Wolski, “Pirates of the Caribbean” franchise), expert editing (Oscar winner William Goldenberg, ARGO), and a terrific score (8-time Oscar nominee James Newton Howard). Mr. Hanks delivers yet another stellar performance (of course), and young Ms. Zengel’s assured performance likely means we will be treated to her work for years to come. It’s a quasi-western period piece that is plenty interesting to watch, yet lacks the memorable moments to justify multiple watches or a place among the genre’s best.
Greetings again from the darkness. Diane Lane and Kevin Costner reunite on screen, only this time it’s not as the earthy and earthly parents to Superman (MAN OF STEEL, 2013). Instead, this film from writer-director Thomas Bezucha (THE FAMILY STONE, 2005), based on Larry Watson’s 2013 novel, features the two stars as long-time married couple, Margaret and George Blackledge, living a peaceful existence on their Montana ranch. Well, it’s peaceful now, as George is retired from his career as a lawman.
Their son James (Ryan Bruce), his wife Lorna (Kayli Carter, “Godless”), and young son Jimmy live on the ranch with Margaret and George. Grandma Margaret’s devotion to her grandson and judgmental nature sometimes crosses the line, creating quiet tension with his mother Lorna. George’s trained eye sees it all, but he mostly keeps his thoughts private, although the communication he shares with Margaret is often through a simple gesture or nod. Their chemistry is one that’s only built through time (and fine acting).
When a freak accident leaves James dead, we flash forward three years as Margaret and George attend Lorna’s wedding to Donnie Weboy (Will Brittain, who was excellent in this year’s BLOW THE MAN DOWN). George senses that Donnie does not possess the highest moral character, but Margaret is hit hardest by the newlyweds moving off the ranch and taking her beloved grandson with them. Concern escalates quickly when Margaret witnesses Donnie being physically abusive to Lorna and Jimmy, and then he relocates them to North Dakota to be near his family … without so much as a warning or goodbye to Margaret and George.
Crossing Grandma Margaret is like kicking the hornet’s nest. Poor George arrives home one day to find the car packed and Margaret on a mission to bring Jimmy home. George’s feeble attempt to reason with her fails (as he knew it would) and the two are soon on the road through some gorgeous countryside captured by cinematographer Guy Godfree. Along the way, they cross paths and befriend Peter (Booboo Stewart), a Native American who deserted “Indian School” for a life of solitude on the plains. It’s also on this road trip where Margaret and George are inundated with every possible warning about the notorious Weboy clan of North Dakota. No specifics are provided, but the message is clear … no one messes with the Weboys.
A tip leads the grandparents to Bill Weboy (Jeffrey Donovan, “Burn Notice”), and he provides living proof that the Weboy clan is rotten to the core. Behind an evil grin, Bill invites Margaret and George to the family ranch for dinner and a visit with their grandson. At the ranch, we are introduced to the twisted matriarch, Blanche Weboy (Lesley Manville, PHANTOM THREAD, 2017). This meeting of the families is about as tense as any we’ve seen on screen. A clash of good versus evil is always welcome, which makes it so disappointing that a film so stellar to this point, abruptly shifts from an intriguing psychological thriller into a ludicrous circus of violence, poor decisions, and absurdity.
There is a lot to like here, before it spins off the axis. Diane Lane is ferocious in the role, and Costner is very effective as her ‘still waters’ husband. It’s a hoot to see Ms. Manville lose her British accent and go over-the-top as nasty Blanche, and the early 1960’s setting looks great, including the vehicles. As mentioned before, the scenery is breath-taking, with Alberta (Canada) standing in beautifully for Montana and North Dakota. Composer Michael Giacchino is more accustomed to working on superhero and animated movies, and the score is often distracting in the first half, but fits better in the final act. Brace yourself for a couple of tough to watch scenes and a jarring tonal shift.
Greetings again from the darkness. The opening title card states “Nothing you are about to see is true” … and then it dissolves, leaving the word ‘true’ as the first word in the film’s title. Of course, some of the things we are about to see are true, though it is a dramatized version with a screenplay adapted by Shaun Grant (BERLIN SYNDROME, 2017) from Peter Carey’s 2000 novel. Director Justin Kurzel (MACBETH, 2015) takes a very artsy and stylistic approach in telling the story of the notorious Australian outlaw, Ned Kelly, while still including the expected violence and brutality.
Opening in 1867 Australia, we first see young Ned Kelly (Orlando Schwert) spying on his mother (Essie Davis, THE BABADOOK, 2014) as she provides service to Sgt. O’Neill (Charlie Hunnam). It’s the kind of service a young boy should never see his mother perform, especially as the father/husband (Ben Corbett) hovers outside the cabin with Ned’s siblings. Life is difficult for the Kelly family. Dad has some issues, so mom does what she has to in order to keep food on the table. Ned’s life and family dynamics change quickly when his dad takes the fall for a crime Ned committed.
Harry Power (played by hefty Russell Crowe) arrives on the scene, and becomes Ned’s mentor in song (a sing-a-long title that can’t be repeated here) and as a bushranger. It’s not long after this when the movie shifts from Ned as a boy, to Ned as a man (played by George Mackay, 1917), who spends a few years away from home. Ned crosses paths with Constable Fitzpatrick (Nicholas Hoult) numerous times, one which results in Ned meeting, and falling for, a young prostitute named Mary Hearn (Thomasin McKenzie, JOJO RABBIT). Ned and Mary return home to visit his mother, and they find she’s now engaged to a younger man, George King (Marlon Williams). George has been teaching his “trade” of horse-thieving to Ned’s brothers, including Dan (played by musician Nick Cave’s son, Earl Cave). It’s at this point we learn about how the Kelly Gang was formed, and why they took to wearing dresses … “Nothing scares a man like crazy.”
There is a lot going on in this story for the tale of a man who was executed at age 25. We see Ned evolve from a curious youngster to a bare-knuckle boxer to an outlaw who became an anti-hero cult icon. Witnessing the father figures he endured leaves little wonder why he turned out the way he did – an angry, cross-dressing outlaw leading the Irish rebellion in hopes of taking down the Crown. Ned is told that “a man can never outrun his fate”, and we know Ned’s fate upfront. We are there as Ned gives a motivational speech to the Kelly gang, and we watch in awe as they self-test their own body armor.
“My Dear Son …” are the first words we hear as Ned writes a letter promising to tell no lies about his history. The letter acts as somewhat of a framing device for the film, and covers the entirety of the Kelly Outbreak, as it’s now referred. There have been numerous projects (movies, mini-series, docu-dramas) over the years, including Mick Jagger (1970) and Heath Ledger (2003) as those who have portrayed Ned Kelly on screen. Director Kurzel and cinematographer Ari Wegner offer up quite a stylish look for this vast wasteland, and even utilizes some Terrence Malick-type editing for effect. Even the closing credit sequence is a work of art. It’s a family affair for director Justin Kurzel, as his brother Jed Kurzel delivers the music, and Justin’s wife Essie Davis plays Ned’s mother. It’s certainly not a typical western, and Ned is difficult to relate to as a character, but the look and style of the film keep us engaged. Perhaps the oddest decision was to have MacKay clean-shaven, as most of us have seen the photos of Ned Kelly and his beard … a beard that seemed to inspire modern day hipsters. Filming took place at Old Melbourne Gaol, which was the actual spot where Ned Kelly was hanged. His last words were: “Such is life.”
Greetings again from the darkness. Westerns are always a risky proposition for a filmmaker, but some are drawn to the genre and seem to thrive on the intricacies that fans have come to expect. Justin Lee is one such filmmaker. He wrote and directed this film and follows the familiar tropes: a quiet, proud protagonist; the strong, lonely woman; the corrupt gunslinger – maybe wearing a badge, maybe not; and of course, the battle of good versus evil.
Kevin Makely stars as Matthias Breecher, a Civil War veteran and now Pinkerton detective carrying out the orders of Senator Benjamin Burke (Tony Todd, CANDY MAN, 1992). Senator Burke has pledged to track down war criminals and hold them accountable by administering justice. Breecher is the Senator’s hired hand who travels from town to town, serving warrants and dealing with those who refuse to abide
Mr. Lee’s film is divided into four chapters. Chapter 1, “The General”, finds Breecher face-to-face with tough-talking General Corbin Dandridge (Trace Adkins). It’s here where Breecher first flashes his impressive gun skills, and it’s soon after where he crosses paths with Harlow (recent honorary Oscar recipient Wes Studi), a competitor in the “bounty-hunter” game. Chapter 2, “The Cooke’s” has Breecher tracking down Reginald Cooke (played for all it’s worth by a finger-wagging Bruce Dern), a sickly old man dying slowly from pneumonia and living with his daughter Sarah (Oscar winner Mira Sorvino). Local bad guy Fred Quaid (James Russo) is trying to seize the Cooke’s land (apparently this is the possessive apostrophe in the chapter title). During this segment we get a nasty fist fight, an ugly shootout, and Breecher falling for Sarah and actually shushing his horse. Chapter 3, “The Sheriff”, brings us to the terrifically named town of “Knife’s Edge” where equally terrifically named evil guy Huxley Wainwright (Jeff Fahey) wears a badge and rules the town with a reign of terror, and with Old West waterboarding. There is even a double-tap grave side shootout. It’s an old mining town and the citizens live in fear – especially the good-hearted barkeep Alice (Amanda Wyss). The segment ends with a ‘high noon’ duel in the dusty street.
Chapter 4, “Breecher”, acts as a finale for our hero, a man we are told was “born to violence.” His dreams of owning land may have faded, and soul-searching has him reckoning with the man he’s become. Mr. Makely reminds of actor Anson Mount in his ability to hold a scene, and we can’t help but think that in his younger years, Mr. Fahey could have easily played the Breecher role. Despite the out-of-place linguistic stylings, director Lee proves the lessons of the old west never get old, and it leaves us with the message … ‘Be still, young man.”
Greetings again from the darkness. Those of us who were watching movies in the 1970’s recall Perry King as one of the fresh-faced, hunky twenty-somethings in THE LORDS OF FLATBUSH (1974) … along with Sylvester Stallone and Henry Winkler. Now, more than 40 years later, not only does Mr. King star as crusty old rancher Sam Kincaid, but he also directs his first feature film. The script is written by Jana F Brown, in what is also her first screenplay. Due to its setting, the film could be labeled as a western, but it’s really a personal drama emphasizing the importance of family reconciliation.
Sam Kincaid (King) is an elderly rancher who lives on land that looks a great deal like the Lucas McCain ranch from the TV classic “The Rifleman”. We first see Sam as he shares his philosophy of mending fences with his hired help. If you are curious, it has to do with knowing “why the holes are there”. Luke (Bryan Kaplan) is the young ranch hand who must not only deal with the severe drought-plagued northern California climate of 1976, but also the past-their-prime tools and equipment. Presenting even more of a challenge is Sam himself.
Sam is suffering from Alzheimer’s disease and his house is decorated with personal notes reminding him how the light switch works, or to perform some other menial task. A particularly pointed note on the phone states, “your daughter doesn’t want to talk to you”. Luke figures out the father and daughter had some kind of falling out, but he soon realizes Sam’s disease is progressing pretty quickly. He tracks down daughter Sarah (Sara Arrington) and pleads with her to come visit her father.
As much as I enjoyed the banter between Sam and Luke, the film picks up a bit when Sarah and her son (Sam’s unknown grandson) arrive. Family issues, secrets and skeletons in the closet make communication between these folks more than a tad uncomfortable at times. However, slowly we see the “fence” mending … and Sam’s early philosophy becomes crystal clear. Campfire-style music plays throughout much of the film, and Sam’s repeated questions allow Luke, Sarah, and grandson CJ to comprehend what’s happening and what needs to be done. Sam’s recurring nightmare can only be stopped with a reconciliation that’s painful for all involved. Perry King proves his effectiveness as an aged rancher, and also as a first time filmmaker. He and Ms. Brown deliver a nice message … and the black and white photography serves the faces and setting quite well.
Greetings again from the darkness. It’s been 6 years since Scott Martin directed his last feature film, and most of his credits are as a producer. This time out, the Texas filmmaker proves his love of the western genre, and he’s so committed to the cause that he dons many Stetsons for the project: writer, director, producer, editor, and one of the lead actors. We always admire those who overcome obstacles and see their vision become a reality. Every movie doesn’t need to be a classic … it’s a Herculean task just to get a film made, and hopefully it provides some entertainment value (which this one does).
Mr. Martin plays Jake, who along with his friend Travis (Clint Hummel) travels the old west countryside finding trouble and making waves at every turn. Jake is the sharpshooter, while Travis is the ladies’ man. Neither seem to have any marketable skills, other than the knack for staying alive – which is an accomplishment given that they seem to be shot at quite frequently and run out of every place they ride into … even Mexico!
The opening shootout sets the mood for us, as it comes across as tongue-in-cheek, with just enough realism to let us know danger exists. Danny Trejo has an entrance worthy of his cult status as Mexican General Morales … a man very displeased with Jake and Travis. An annoying electronic score accompanies a chase scene that crosses the border and ends at a Cavalry outpost run by a Colonel played by the great Michael Pare (EDDIE AND THE CRUISERS), whose two scenes are over far too quickly.
Jake and Travis accompany city slicker Jim Andrews (Christoph Sanders) on a road trip via horseback to Big Kill, Arizona … a town Jim’s brother has promised him is booming. A recurring punchline of “Never heard of it” adds some levity every time Big Kill is mentioned. Instead of a lucrative silver mining town, they find a once boom town gone bust, and now the town is run by the most unethical “Preacher” (steely-eyed and square-jawed Jason Patric) that one is likely to find. The preacher is aided by his muscle: quick-draw Johnny Kane (Lou Diamond Phillips in a gaudy red suit and evil grin) and Stephanie Beran as a knife toting Felicia Stiletto – just one of the character names pulled straight out of the comic book universe.
Jim’s brother (played by KC Clyde) is located, and though Jim begins the courting process with local girl Josie Strong (a standout Elizabeth McLaughlin), the troubles and violence and literal backstabbing in town soon draws the boys into the fracas. Much of the film has the look of kids playing dress up, but as a tongue-in-cheek western, there is enough entertainment value to hold our interest for 2 hours. Fortunately music director Kays Al-Atrakchi resorts to more traditional trumpet-based western music after that opening chase. Most of the shootouts provide some humor, whether intended or not, but we can be sure the cast had a grand time making this one … that shines through loud and clear – especially in a town where the undertaker is named Digger.
Greetings again from the darkness. It was a good news – bad news kind of day for westerns. First, it’s announced that Mel Gibson will direct a remake of Sam Peckinpah’s 1969 classic THE WILD BUNCH. Talk about an undesired and unnecessary project! Fortunately, the movie gods understood this gut-punch and as a peace offering, delivered this near-masterpiece that doesn’t so much re-invent the Western, but rather provides a tonal and stylistic twist to the genre.
This is the first English language project from writer/director Jacques Audiard, who has previously delivered such powerful and well-crafted films as A PROPHET (2009), RUST AND BONE (2012), and DHEEPAN (2015). Based on the Patrick DeWitt novel, with a screenplay from Mr. Audiard and his frequent collaborator Thomas Bidegain, this latest is a very unusual film that teeters on satire at times, but is simply too bleak to be a comedy – although it’s too darn funny to be an outright drama.
A terrific opening sequence in 1851 Oregon features a nighttime shootout that sets the stage both visually and tonally for what we will experience for the next couple of hours. It’s beautifully shot and there is some misdirection on what exactly the Sisters brothers are made of. John C. Reilly is absolutely wonderful as Eli Sisters, the soulful forward-thinking one who also has a dash of goofiness to him. His younger brother Charlie Sisters, played by Joaquin Phoenix, is the slightly unhinged one who frequently follows in his hated father’s footsteps by drinking heavily. Charlie is alternatingly quietly menacing and drunkenly menacing. The two brothers are hired assassins, and while Eli dreams of a peaceful retirement, Charlie can’t imagine not doing what they do.
The brothers have been contracted by ‘The Commodore’, a rarely seen power broker played in brief glimpses by the great Rutger Hauer. They are to meet up with advance scout John Morris (played by Jake Gyllenhaal with a quasi-British accent) and kill Hermann Kermit Warm (Riz Ahmed), who has supposedly stolen from The Commodore. Of course, there is more to the story. Warm has actually developed a chemical compound that allows for the easy gathering of gold from waterways – remember this is the height of the Gold Rush.
This is kind of a road trip film … only it’s on a horse trail from Oregon to San Francisco, and it’s kind of a buddy film … only it’s two brothers. Along the way, bonds are forged and broken, and paths are crossed with a kind-hearted saloon gal (Allison Tolman), a greedy town lord (trans actor Rebecca Root), and the brothers’ mother played by the always interesting Carol Kane. There is also a cringe-inducing run-in with a spider, an unfortunate end for a favorite horse, and the hilarious first use of a toothbrush. There is also a Dallas joke that drew quite the laughter from my Dallas audience.
It’s such an unusual film, and it’s presented with a non-traditional pace and rhythm. The moments of laughter surround a core with a dramatic story of destiny, the meaning of life, dreams and visions, and the greed of man. All of this is set to yet another terrific score from Alexandre Desplat and the visually striking photography of Benoit Debie. Director Audiard has delivered a bleak comedy or a comical drama, and he’s done so with more than a fair share of violence. Whether you consider yourself a fan of westerns or not, this one deserves a look.