If you’re the one, I’ve got two reasons not to saddle up with The Harder They Fall.
It’s a Western
Ruthless Rufus Buck (Idris Elba) is getting out of jail, and that’s mighty interesting news to Nat Love (Jonathan Majors), who has no love for Rufus.
Nat has a serious score to settle, so he re-assembles his old gang, led by sharpshooter Bill Pickett (Edi Gathegi), and sets out on horseback. Along the way, Nat rekindles a flame with saloon owner Stagecoach Mary (Zazie Beetz) and earns the trust of Mary’s silent-but-deadly bodyguard Cuffie (Danielle Deadwyler).
And even though Nat is a wanted man, Marshall Bass Reeves (Delroy Lindo) decides he’d rather be on the team that finally takes Buck down.
But Rufus has some pretty solid support in his corner, too. Treacherous Trudy Smith (Regina King) speaks softly but shows no mercy, while quick draw legend Cherokee Bill (LaKeith Stanfield) leads a posse of men helping Rufus kick Sherrif Wiley Escoe (Deon Cole) out of Redwood and take over the town.
And that town ain’t big enough for both Buck and Love.
Director and co-writer Jeymes Samuel (aka The Bullitts) plants his flag early, with onscreen text telling us that he may not be telling a true story, but these people did exist. So while you may be reminded of Tarantino (or his many shared influences), this film’s history isn’t alternative. Samuel and his committed ensemble are here to remind us that it’s the whitewashed Hollywood version of the Old West that’s fiction.
Yes, these dusty roads are well traveled and the dialog can be a bit musty (“love is the only thing worth dying for…”), but there’s so much stylish bloodshed, gallows humor and terrific acting in every frame that the film wins you over on pure entertainment value alone.
Plus, it looks fantastic. Samuel frames the landscape with gorgeous panoramas, while wrapping some nimble camera movements and pulsing rhythms around those steely stare downs, frantic shoot ’em ups, freshly-pressed hats and dusters and plenty of other delicious period details.
The Harder They Fall is big, bold, visionary fun. It takes characters, races and lifestyles that have been hijacked by history and reclaims them all with the brashness of an early morning bank job.
This crew ain’t shootin’ blanks, and they rarely miss.
The horror Western is an under-explored subgenre. There have
been some great
ones. In fact, just two years ago filmmaker Emma Tammi took a look at isolation
and outlaws from a female perspective with her effective nightmare The
Co-writer/director Aaron B. Koontz (Scare
Package) pits a bunch of women against some scurrilous train robbers in
a Wild West ghost town for his latest, The Pale Door.
The title is a Poe reference, a line from his poem The Haunted Palace. Poe wasn’t much of a gun slinger, but that doesn’t matter because the title has nothing to do with anything. Just go with it. You’ll enjoy Koontz’s odd concoction more if you do.
Little brother Jake (Devin Druid) and big brother Duncan (Zachary Knighton) grew up on opposite sides of the law. Duncan runs the Dalton Gang, a bunch of quick shootin’ and hard drinkin’ outlaws. But that’s not the life Duncan ever wanted for his bro, who sweeps up at a saloon and saves his nickels to buy back the old farm.
Until the gang is one man down with a big payday coming on the next train. Jake steps in, the gang robs the train, but this score is not what they expected and next thing they know, wouldn’t ya figure it? Witches.
I am all in for a ghost town full of witches—it’s like a
Scooby Doo episode gone wonderfully off track. Production values do not evoke a
period and the props are hardly authentic, but the atmosphere is fun and the
cast has a good time.
Pat Healey is the wrong-headed good choice he always is.
Noah Segan (who directed one of the shorts in Koontz’s Scare Package) is
basically playing Noah Segan, but luckily that character is always so
Veteran character actor Stan Shaw is mainly saddled with
exasperated entrances and hypermasculine melodrama (because this is, after all,
a Western). Meanwhile, Bill Sage (We Are What We Are) charms as a kind
of poor man’s Bruce Campbell. (That’s not an insult. We can’t all be Bruce
So the gang finds themselves in a sort of Wild West Titty
Twister (let’s assume you’ve seen From Dusk Till Dawn), and young,
wholesome Jake may be their only hope for survival.
Does the leap from Salem to Western ghost town make sense? It does not. How about the basic internal mythology, the blood ritual, the sex, the ending? Not really. And no one will accuse The Pale Door of taking a female perspective.
But for a witchtastic Western, is it fun?
Edgar Allen Poe couldn’t have made it any more fun.
There are not enough horror westerns. And why not? The whole Wild West thing feels like a terrifying, isolated, dangerous adventure—especially for women.
Director Emma Tammi’s first narrative feature, The Wind, pulls together all those ideas and more into an absorbing little nightmare.
Lizzy and Isaac Macklin (Caitlin Gerard and Ashley Zukerman, respectively) are relieved to see smoke coming from a distant chimney. The only other cabin for miles has been empty a long while, and the prairie does get lonesome.
But companionship and burden go hand in hand for Lizzy, and company won’t chase away all the demons plaguing this harsh land.
Working from a spare script by Teresa Sutherland, Tammi develops a wonderfully spooky descent into madness. Throughout Lizzy’s isolation, Tammi swaps images onscreen from present moment reality to weeks earlier, to months earlier, to a present-day hallucination or specter and back again. The looping time frame and repetitive imagery turn in on themselves to create a dizzying effect that echoes Lizzy’s headspace.
Gerard spends nearly as much screen time alone as she does with co-stars, and her turn is haunting. There’s nothing showy in this performance, Gerard slyly betraying one emotion at a time through the character’s well-rehearsed stoicism and reserve.
It’s a feat of imagination and execution for both Gerard and Tammi, turning this small production—only five principle actors and two sets—into a hypnotic ordeal. Tammi’s confident pacing and Gerard’s masterful performance ensure a gripping trip through a merciless slice of prairie life.
How does one make a film that’s uniquely South African yet still feels like an American western? Director Michael Matthews and writer Sean Drummond answer that question with the stunning Five Fingers for Marseilles.
From the beginning, Matthews evokes Sergio Leone’s A Fistful of Dollars trilogy. Four boys stand facing each other, hands at the ready, waiting for a sign to fire their slingshots. When it comes, Tau, The Lion, stands victorious. It’s a scene that sets the tone for a film that not only calls up classics like Leone’s, but also Yojimbo.
Tau is described as ruthless and mean, but he’s also filled with an anger that makes him reckless. In apartheid-era South Africa, small enclaves such as Railway – a district within the city of Marseilles – are at the mercy of their oppressors. As Tau and his friends argue about how to resist the police that fleece them, he insists on using more than sticks. His brother, Zulu, demands he exercise caution.
However, when a friend is threatened with brutality, Tau’s anger leads to a careless decision. When he flees the scene of his crime, he not only leaves behind his friends but his responsibility. Those left behind suffer because of “The Lion”‘s heedless anger.
Decades pass before Tau returns to Railway. The town seems the same though apartheid has ended. Police still shake down the citizens, but another sinister element has also descended on the town, a gang led by a fearsome man known as The Ghost. Though Tau seeks to return untroubled, he is inevitably called to his former role as protector.
It’s a familiar story, and the political backdrop of a South Africa trying to find its way after apartheid lends itself well to the retelling. As Tau, Vuyo Dabula is a perfect representation of the man with no name. Though he is The Lion, a man with a past full of brutality, he seeks to start anew as Nobody. It’s the sinister nature of the world around him that draws him back into a world of ferocity and lawlessness.
There are few villains as perfect as Sepoko, also known as The Ghost. Every moment Hamilton Dhlamini is on screen, the tension escalates. The masterful score only magnifies this malevolent figure.
With desolate landscapes, brutal violence and characters with questionable moral compasses, Five Fingers for Marseilles is not only a magnificent Western, but an exquisite film.
The classic western, the cowboy story, sings a song of bruised manliness. Chasing destiny, sacrificing family and love for a solitary life, building a relationship with land and beast—there may be no cinematic genre more full of romance.
This is the hardscrabble poetry that fills writer/director Chloe Zhao’s latest, The Rider.
Set on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, the film shadows talented rodeo rider and horse trainer Brady (Brady Jandreau), who’s suffered a near-fatal head injury with lingering seizures and must now grapple with his future and his identity.
It’s a classic cowboy tale, really: will he give up cowboying because it will surely kill him, or will he get back up on that horse?
But what Zhao’s film avoids is sentimentality and sheen. With a hyper-realistic style showcasing performances by non-actors who lived a very similar story, she simultaneously celebrates and inverts the romance that traditionally fuels this kind of film.
Elegant and cinematic, but at the same time a spontaneous work of verite, The Rider breaks its own cinematic ground.
Images of real poverty butt up against lonesome vistas, a sole horse breaking up the line of the sunset. There’s no glossing over the realities Brady is facing when picking through what kind of future is left for him if he’s not a cowboy. The story is even clearer about what’s ahead of him if he is.
The Rider’s subject matter authenticity gives it the feel of a documentary. But because of the way Zhao plays with light, uses music, and fills the screen with the desolate beauty of the American plains, the film qualifies as a sleepy epic.
Zhao’s work is unmistakably indie, not a born crowd-pleaser, but beautifully lifelike. She has given new life to a genre, creating a film about the loss of purpose and, in that manly world of the cowboy, masculinity.
Filmmaker Ted Geoghegan has been making horror movies since 2001 when he began writing primarily low-budget European horror. His award-winning 2015 break out film We Are Still Here, a haunted house tale starring beloved genre staple Barbara Crampton, marked him as a director worth attention. He leveraged that success to tell a story he’d been mulling for years, a genre hybrid that breaks new ground called Mohawk.
Hope Madden: Did you set out to make a horror movie this time around: Ted Geoghegan: Even though it’s being marketed as an action-horror film, Mohawk‘s more of a sad, angry drama about marginalized people. It’s spiritually similar to We Are Still Here while also being a total, hard 180.
Madden: How’s that? Geoghegan:Mohawk‘s a very unconventional period film, from the relationship of its lead characters and hard synth score to the fact that it was shot completely with natural light and on actual Mohawk land. It’s a sad, angry, very political anti-Trump drama about colonialism, but it’s also got people being stabbed in the head. It’s awfully different and we take some bold creative choices, but I figure that’s what cinema is for.
Madden:Mohawk is possibly the first Western to take the Native American point of view, but definitely the first to make that perspective female. Did you set out to break that ground? Geoghegan: Absolutely. I’ve made it a point in my directorial works that my films are always anchored by a strong female lead. I am someone who relishes the idea of being able to tell the stories of marginalized people and encourage those people to be able to tell their own stories as well.
Madden: How did this story come about? Geoghegan: This story that has grown out of my youth in Montana followed by my present life in New York City. I grew up around a lot of Native and indigenous people and for me, it was a part of my daily life. Years ago, when I moved to New York City, I was surprised by the lack of Native faces on the streets. It greatly surprised me and saddened me.
I remember being surprised by the number of times I would see signs saying Mohawk Construction or Mohawk Steelwork or Mohawk Ironworks over a lot of the City’s buildings: the Chrysler building, the Empire State building.
While I was aware of the fact that the Mohawk were an indigenous people, I knew very little about them aside from the eponymous haircuts. I wanted to learn more, so I started reading up on these people who were very foreign to me but who were the original people who called the region that I call home their original home.
I was bowled over by a lot of what their society had gone through over the course of several centuries and found that it was a story that I might want to tell.
I am a white man of European heritage and for me, I understand the gravitas, I understand the weight of telling a story like this about the decimation of indigenous people and tried to make the point through all of the creative process to not only treat it with the respect that it deserved, but also the humility of telling the story of someone with a very different heritage.
Madden: How did you manage to stay out of your own way? Geoghegan: It is a topic that I try to treat with the utmost respect and responsibility.
I am a fan of war films, but my favorites are those that do not portray the heroes with halos and the villains twirling their mustaches. To me, war, like all aspects of humanity, exist in shades of grey. I think it’s important to portray that in your heroes and your villains.
Over the course of events in Mohawk, a group of scared, angry white men were making decisions based almost solely on fear and blind hatred. And you have a group of heroes who are making their decisions almost solely based on fear. These are not rational people and they are not necessarily making decisions that may be the best given the circumstances. I think it’s extremely important to acknowledge that no one is truly innocent, that everyone is in some way guilty.
Madden: Tell me about your cast. Geoghegan: Kaniehtiio Horn, is actually a Mohawk. She was rather wary about the fact that she was reading a script called Mohawk written by two white men of European descent, but she really responded well to the film. She felt like the story resonated and she was very appreciative of the fact that we had done our research. She did have a lot of notes, which we were so excited about. The fact that we were able to incorporate so many things in the script was beyond our wildest dreams.
I feel very blessed that I was able to work with Mohawk actors and native contributors to the film in terms of language consultants to make something that not only I could be proud of but they could as well.
Madden: And the wardrobe? Geoghegan: The wardrobe was created in cooperation with a historical producer we brought on to the film, Guy Gane. Guy spent the majority of his life researching the 1800s and he was so excited to tell a story set during the War of 1812, a war that’s been almost completely erased from cinema. It’s a war in which the US lost, so we tend to not talk about hose as much.
Guy brought in an amazing team of people who helped us create the very historically accurate wardrobe for both the native people and the new Americans. A lot of people might expect native wardrobe to look more traditionally cinematic. Guy really helped us understand that the Mohawk, in particular—who’d been trading with Europeans for centuries by that point—actually dressed in a rather modern style. The fact that Oak wears a red miniskirt is not anachronistic in the least. It’s actually exactly what young Mohawk women were wearing, down to the ribbon and down to the fabric. And it was such a joy to be able to work with him on that and help change a lot of expectations about what a lot of Mohawk people looked like and acted like at that time.
Madden: It’s interesting that the three heroes are in a sexual relationship. What made you decide to take that approach? Geoghegan: Upon researching Mohawk history, they are a polyamorous society. They are also a matriarchal society, which is interesting because of how patriarchal so many Native nations were.
Originally we tried to broach the fact that, while Oak is quite in love with these men, they’re in love with each other, too. Rather than have moments in the film where all three share a big, passionate kiss, I wanted to treat it as something that’s so normal it’s almost blasé.
I wanted to toy with traditional conventions about storytelling and that felt like an interesting way to do so. In studying the Mohawk people and just how truly unconventional and how anti-establishment they were as a society, I was inspired to include things like that. It also helps me understand why anti-establishment people now wear the Mohawk hairdo. It really comes full circle when you understand who the Mohawk people are as to why people decide to have this specific hairdo. It says a lot without saying much at all.
Madden: It’s similar to the way you address so much in the film without calling attention to it. You create a lived-in world where these unexpected choices—a female point of view, polyamorous relationships, matriarchy—feel like normal storytelling choices. Like, why not look at it this way? Geoghegan: You really hit the nail on the head when you used the phrase “Why not?” That’s what the society right now needs to wrap their brains around. This is reality and why not? People are going to love who they love and live where they live and unfortunately people are going to hate who they hate. That’s the basic core message behind this film is trying to find some sort of space where all of these human emotions can all live in one place together.
Madden: How much was this influenced by today’s political climate? Geoghegan: Extremely. It’s extremely, extremely influenced by what’s going on today and that’s actually the main reason why I made this film.
If the injustices that occurred in Mohawk were no longer happening today, I don’t know if those stories would have resonated as strongly with me. But the fact that so many marginalized people are screwed over every single day by other people, by blind hatred, by our government—I knew this was something that had to be addressed.
And again, given the fact that I am a white guy of European heritage, I had to take a very hard look at myself and my own ancestors and the fact that Holt (Cavalry officer) and his companions in Mohawk, those are the people that I am descended from. I think that I and everyone else in America needs to acknowledge this history of atrocity and do what we can to stop it from repeating itself, which it unfortunately seems like it is doing these days.
The fact that people are still being blindly persecuted because of the color of their skin or who they love or where they live is so unbelievable to me and I’ve often told people that I could remake Mohawk, set it in the year 2018 and change very few things and it would still work in exactly the same fashion, which is deeply unsettling.
After all of my impassioned speeches about it not being a horror movie, I now keep thinking – given that we’ve been living in a horror movie for the past two years – maybe it is.
Here’s to a time when stories like Mohawk aren’t as timely.
Mohawk opens in limited release and on VOD Friday, March 2.
Hey, Christian Bale and Ben Foster are in another Western. Remember how fun 3:10 to Yuma was?!
Well, writer/director Scott Cooper is a very serious man. If there is one thing you won’t call his films—Crazy Heart, Out of the Furnace, Black Mass and his latest, Hostiles—it’s a laugh riot.
Hostiles is a morose Western with too-obvious intentions. Thanks to Bale and cinematographer Mesanobu Takayanagi, though, the result is a graceful if revisionist image. With Takayanagi’s help, Cooper recalls the best of John Ford’s The Searchers, and with Bale’s help he rectifies its worst.
Facing retirement from a lifetime of warring with Native Americans across the West, Capt. Joseph Blocker (Bale) has one final assignment: escort the ailing Chief Yellow Hawk (Wes Studi) and his family back to Montana so he can die with his people.
After many years of hatred and resentment toward Native Americans in general and Yellow Hawk in particular, Blocker wants no part in this “parade.” But he is a good soldier.
The journey offers opportunities for many an adventure, the first of which is the meeting of homesteader Rosalie Quaid (Rosamund Pike). Blocker’s party finds her in her burned-out home, but we already know what happened thanks to the profoundly brutal attack that opened the film.
Over the course of the film’s 133-minute running time, lessons are learned, each one coming at a very bloody cost. Though Bale and most of the supporting players deliver quietly devastating performances, their arcs feel more than forced. They feel patronizing.
Mainly that’s because the Native American actors have no such arcs. Studi, along with Adam Beach, Tanaya Beatty, Q’orianka Kilcher and Xavier Horsechief—the prisoners—are one-dimensional beings of pure wisdom, compassion and nobility.
Which is no doubt preferable to the being nameless, bloodthirsty monsters that stand in for Apache characters.
Cooper sets his tale at a bitter transition in American history when civilization was beginning to overtake the Wild West and people like Blocker were no longer sure of their purpose, no longer comfortable with their past. Like Blocker, Cooper seems determined to right a wrong but, again like his character, he doesn’t seem to know quite how to do it.
Westerns share a lot in common with horror. Both deal in black and white, good and evil, blood. There’s not a lot of true cross over. Sure, you’ve got some brilliant horror that pulls ideas from the Western: Sam Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs, Wes Craven’s The Hills Have Eyes. But that’s not what we’re looking for. We want horses and cowboy hats and shit. And we found them.
Here are the five best Western/horror crossovers.
5. The Burrowers (2008)
Here’s one that bears a resemblance to Bone Tomahawk: someone’s love goes missing, Indians are blamed, a posse heads out in search but finds something more sinister than expected.
Writer/director J.T. Petty laments the barbarism of the white settler and its Cavalry with a bleak and subconsciously gruesome image of the consequences of “progress”.
Burrowers, though, asserts itself as a horror film early and often. It certainly borrows from both genres, balancing themes well by exploring what’s ugliest in Western lore. Horror films tend toward social commentary in a way that Westerns rarely do—indeed, classic Westerns tend to revel in the exact elements of human nature that horror likes to exploit for its blood-curdling nastiness.
Solid performances, especially from veteran character actors Clancy Brown and William Mapother, elevate the film above its monster movie trappings.
4. Ginger Snaps Back: The Beginning (2004)
In 2004, director Grant Harvey offered an origin story for the lycanthropic Fitzgerald sisters (Katharine Isabelle and Emily Perkins reprising their roles). It’s 1815 and Ginger and Bridget find themselves lost in the Canadian wilderness, seeking assistance from a Native American woman and then shelter from a creepy pastor and his flock at a fur trading post.
What’s got the traders so spooked? Werewolves!
They bring the sisters in because they are nicer than the people at The Slaughtered Lamb, but it turns out they’d have been better off leaving G&B to die in the woods.
The movie has a fun, self-consciously anachronistic style to it that allows the Fitzgerald sisters to seem even more like us and like outsiders than they did in the original high school horror show. Dream sequences, practical effects, creepy kids, sisterly love and old fashioned carnage make this one a decent throwback.
3. Dead Birds (2004)
First, we get to liking the rag tag bunch of misfits—deserters from the Confederate army: two brothers (Henry Thomas and Patrick Fugit), two buddies (Michael Shannon and Mark Boone Junior – hell yes!), an escaped slave (Isaiah Washington) and a nurse (Nicki Aycox).
Next, we’re freaked out by the mutant boar and grisly scarecrow in the abandoned plantation where they will hole up with their ill-gotten loot.
What director Alex Turner does best with his supernatural Western is to draw you in with sympathetic characters played well by talented actors. Though the pace is slow—as is often the case with supernatural horror—and the FX are not spectacular, the film has a hypnotic quality and it fills you with dread.
Turner benefits from an empathetic script penned by Simon Barrett, who’d go on to a fruitful partnership with director Adam Wingard (You’re Next, The Guest, Blair Witch). Together with haunting performances, the mind-bender of a story leaves you troubled.
2. Ravenous (1999)
The blackest of comedies, the film travels back to the time of the Mexican/American War to throw us in with a cowardly soldier (Guy Pearce) reassigned to a mountainous California outpost where a weary soul wanders into camp with a tale of the unthinkable – his wagon train fell to bad directions, worse weather, and a guide with a taste for human flesh.
Pearce is great as the protagonist struggling against his own demons, trying to achieve some kind of peace with himself and his own shortcomings, but Robert Carlyle steals this movie.
As the wraithlike Colonel Ives, he makes the perfect devil stand-in. Smooth, compelling and wicked, he offsets Pearce’s tortured soul perfectly. The pair heighten the tensions with some almost-sexual tension, which director Antonia Bird capitalizes on brilliantly.
1. Bone Tomahawk (2015)
In a year rife with exceptional Westerns (Slow West, The Hateful Eight, The Revenant), this film sets itself apart. S. Craig Zahler’s directorial debut embraces the mythos of the Wild West, populating a familiar frontier town with weathered characters, but casting those archetypes perfectly.
Kurt Russell and Richard Jenkins, in particular, easily inhabit the upright sheriff and eccentric side kick roles, while Patrick Wilson’s committed turn as battered heroic lead offers an emotional center.
Zahler effortlessly blends the horror and Western genres, remaining true to both and crafting a film that’s a stellar entry into either category. Bone Tomahawk looks gorgeous and boasts exceptional writing, but more than anything, it offers characters worthy of exploration. There are no one-note victims waiting to be picked off, but instead an assortment of fascinating people and complex relationships all wandering into mystical, bloody danger.
Because the true horror is a long time coming and you’re genuinely invested in the participants in this quest, the payoff is deeply felt. This is a truly satisfying effort, and one that marks a new filmmaker to keep an eye on.
What if women, traumatized veterans, blacks, Asian Americans, American Indians, Mexican Americans and whatever white men we have left with a conscience exerted their inalienable right to govern a country that belongs as much to them as to anyone?
Or, what if Hollywood injected these themes into an old Western and hired fewer white guys playing Mexicans?
I give you, Antoine Fuqua’s The Magnificent Seven.
Denzel Washington anchors the septet as Sam Chisolm, bounty hunter. Newly widowed Emma Cullen (Haley Bennett) approaches him with a proposition: Rid Rose Creek of its evil despot (Peter Sarsgaard, wearily evil) in return for everything they have to give.
He’s been paid a lot before, but never everything.
So, Chisolm gathers a group of amiable rogues and heads to near-certain doom in the name of justice – like a Suicide Squad that doesn’t suck.
Based on John Sturges’s 1960 adaptation of Kurasawa’s 1954 classic Seven Samurai, Fuqua’s attempt is already three steps removed from originality. More than that, it’s tough to reignite the spark that made a 50+ year old story fun in the first place.
Not that Fuqua doesn’t take some liberties. Riding alongside Chisolm is as diverse an array of gunslingers as you’re likely to find.
Byung-hun Lee’s efficient knife expert, the solitary Comanche (Martin Sensmeier), and Mexican lawbreaker Vasquez (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo) join haunted Confederate Goodnight Robicheaux (Ethan Hawk, voted coolest name), Chris Pratt (playing Chris Pratt) and Vincent D’Onofrio as something else entirely. As Pratt’s Faraday describes him, “That bear was wearing people clothes.”
The film’s multicultural, multi-gendered slant, while appealing, is also jarringly anachronistic. Aside from a handful of good-natured barbs from inside the posse and a bit of stink eye from some of the dodgier locals, there’s nary a racist whisper. In America, circa 1867.
Let’s not even talk about Bennett’s cleavage.
Obvious flaws aside, you can’t argue the cast. D’Onofrio’s a freak (I mean that in the best way), Lee is quietly fascinating, and Denzel has the inarguable gravitas and wicked charm to pull the plan together.
For those of you afraid that Hollywood was about to turn your favorite old Western into an action flick with one liners – I give you…
Seriously, though, Sturgis’s film is more charmingly nostalgic than it is classic – like a toothless Wild Bunch. Fuqua respects the film that inspired his, and works in affection for many of the Westerns that define the genre.
He proves again his capacity to stage action, and the film’s final hour is a mixture of genre odes and glorious choreography as explosions crash, bullets fly and projectiles project.
Which would be great – given the cast, it might even be enough – if Fuqua understood the element that separates Westerns from other genres. It’s not a gatling gun, a saloon or a lonesome street itching for a shoot-out. It’s the haunted heartbeat of the damaged gunslinger. The Magnificent Seven, though fun, is too slick and superficial to find that rhythm.
Two brothers in West Texas go on a bank robbing spree. Marshalls with cowboy hats pursue. It’s a familiar idea, certainly, and Hell or High Water uses that familiarity to its advantage. Director David Mackenzie (Starred Up) embraces the considerable talent at his disposal to create a lyrical goodbye to a long gone, romantic notion of manhood.
Two pairs of men participate in this moseying road chase. Brothers Toby and Tanner – Chris Pine and Ben Foster, respectively – are as seemingly different as the officers trying to find them. Those Texas Marshalls, played with the ease that comes from uncommon talent, are Marcus (Jeff Bridges) and Alberto (Gil Birmingham).
Though both pairs feel like opposites at first blush, their relationships are more complicated than you might imagine. Foster, a magnificent character actor regardless of the film, is a playful menace. Though Pine’s Toby spends the majority of the film quietly observing, his bursts of energy highlight the kinship. Their often strained banter furthers the story, but moments of humor – many landing thanks to Foster’s wicked comic sensibility – do more to authenticate the relationship.
Likewise, Bridges – wearing the familiar skin of a grizzled old cowboy – makes every line, every breath, ever racist barb feel comfortably his own. Birmingham impresses as well, quietly articulating a relationship far muddier than the dialog alone suggests.
These four know what to do with Taylor Sheridan’s words.
Sheridan more than impressed with his screenwriting debut, last year’s blistering Sicario. Among other gifts, the writer remembers that every character is a character and his script offers something of merit to every body on the screen – a gift this cast does not disregard.
The supporting actors populating a dusty, dying landscape make their presence felt, whether Dale Dickey’s wizened bank teller, Katy Mixon’s spunky diner waitress, or a hilarious Margaret Bowman as another waitress you do not want to cross.
Even with the film’s unhurried narrative, not a moment of screen time is wasted. You see it in the investment in minor characters and in the utter, desolate gorgeousness of Giles Nuttgen’s photography. Every image Mackenzie shares adds to the air of melancholy and inevitability as our heroes, if that’s what you’d call any of these characters, fight the painful, oppressive, emasculating tide of change.
A film as well written, well acted, well photographed and well directed as Hell or High Water is rare. Do not miss it.