Cast: Aaron Pedersen, Hugo Weaving, Jack Thompson, Ryan Kwanten, Tasma Walton
Ivan Sen’s fine, modern-dress Australian western impresses as much for what it doesn’t do as much as what it does. It’s unhurried, unprettified, and has a sparse soundtrack with minimal music; not everything is explained, and much is left unsaid. In other words it’s a genre film made for adults – remember them?
Aaron Pederson plays a man alone, an aboriginal copper, treated as the enemy by his own people, and hardly ‘one of the boys’ in the small police department he has recently returned to in outback Queensland. Tasked with a job nobody else wants – investigating the murder of a teenage aboriginal girl – he begins to uncover some murky business involving drugs and prostitution, in which his own force, and, more queasily, his own abandoned daughter, may be involved. Clearly headed into troubled waters, and with nobody to back him up, he begins to look more and more vulnerable under those wide-open skies…
Mystery Road is released in the UK on DVD, Blu-ray and VOD on 27 October 2014 by Axiom Films.
The set-up is entirely conventional for any number of thrillers, but there are no Hollywood faces here, no extraneous action sequences, no master criminals either. The details of life in this harsh environment are well observed, and the atmosphere of menace is well sustained right up to the brilliantly delivered final confrontation. All the performances are pitched just right, with Hugo Weaving especially good value as the wayward and worrying leader of the drug squad (in terrifying double denim!). It looks great, too, especially the night sequences, where the land turns black, and the horizon is a riot of oranges and reds, with human figures picked out in sick green neon. Photography by Mr. Sen as well. Clever boy. Gold stars.
This review was first published as part of our 2013 LFF coverage.
Cast: Kris Kristofferson, Christopher Walken, Jeff Bridges, Isabelle Huppert, John Hurt
‘Exhilarating and Moral’ are the words written at the entrance of the new skating rink that dominates the centre of a small town in Wyoming, and these same words can equally be understood as an ironic comment on the film itself. The exhilaration in Heaven’s Gate comes with director Michael Cimino’s obvious love of scale and movement. There is a spendthrift giddiness to the proceedings, an excess which chimes perfectly with the legends associated with the film’s production.
The opening scene is as high-spirited as the Harvard students who are shown celebrating their graduation. Cimino’s camera whirls around the lawns, first waltzing with the gals and then fighting with a rival fraternity. It is this dizzying movement, more than character or plot, that dominates the film. The exhilarating dancing will be continued, 20 years later when the action moves to Heaven’s Gate, in the roller-skating rink as a violinist plays a reel, and the townsfolk join the dance. But this commotion will give over to a dance of death, as the headlong rush becomes the confused, tragic and circular charge of violence and blood in the final showdown. Cimino creates a portrait of a marginalised community caught in the onrush of history. Individuals will battle to understand and react to changes that are too brutal and uncompromising. Many will be crushed (and several characters are literally crushed) in the headlong calamity of life.
So for the story: a wealthy ex-Harvard man, Marshal Jim Averill (Kris Kristofferson) returns to Johnson County on learning that new immigrants are being targeted by the cattle barons’ association, led by Frank Canton (Sam Waterson). The association has drawn up a ‘death list’ of more than a hundred names. Averill doesn’t fully belong to either camp: he has been blackballed from the club where the association holds its meetings, and his university chum Billy (John Hurt) is now a gin-sodden baron, who acquiesces in murder even as he fails manically to maintain a cultured pose of insouciance. But Jim’s affections lie with Ella (Isabelle Hupert), a young prostitute who takes stolen cattle and cash from customers, and thus finds herself included on the list. One of Jim’s friends is Nick Champion (Christopher Walken), a murderer for the association, who himself nevertheless comes from the same immigrant stock as his victims.
This is where the ‘moral’ part comes in. The cynicism and anger are heartfelt – but the speed of events and switching loyalties overtake the film and its protagonists. The town meetings held in the skating rink are drowned out in lamentations and shouting, and finally gunfire; no one is clear what they want to do – including Jim – and when a decision is finally made to fight back against the association’s hired killers, many rush off in the wrong direction or are killed in the initial enthusiasm, before the association forces fire a shot.
Michael Cimino’s grand folly has accrued legends about massive waste, with entire towns built and then torn down and built again; the ruination of a major studio; and the definitive death – after a moment of brief supremacy – of the auteur in Hollywood. But now that we have the re-mastered director’s cut, we can judge for ourselves the worth of this bizarre end to the American Western. It certainly has its flaws (principally the wooden post that is Kris Kristofferson, sitting like a lump in the middle of the film) but this cut finally allows us to see the beauty – especially in the glory of the landscape, captured by Vilmos Zsigmond – and the terror of the brutal labor pains that were played out in this birth of a nation.
Writers: Bill Bryden, Steven Phillip Smith, Stacy Keach, James Keach n
Cast: James Keach, Stacy Keach, David Carradine, Robert Carradine, Keith Carradine, Dennis Quaid, Randy Quaid, Christopher Guest, Nicholas Guest
The Long Riders, Walter Hill’s take on the exploits of the Jesse James and Cole Younger gang, is an entertaining, highly watchable Western with some charismatic performances, if not quite a classic of the genre. The film’s ace in the hole, casting real-life brothers to play the ones in the gang, may sound like a bit of a gimmick, but it’s actually a strategy that pays off beautifully (despite the fact I can’t help but think that the roles of the Quaid brothers should have been reversed). Although James Keach produced the film, he and his brother Stacey, as Jesse and Frank James, respectively, take something of a back seat to the Younger brothers, terrifically played by David and Keith Carradine. It’s Keith in particular, whose character, Jim, seems to spend half the film romancing a whore, in some of the film’s lighter moments, who delivers one of the film’s strongest and most appealing performances.
Hill and his screenwriters are generous with their sympathy for the notorious bandits: the film opens with a bank robbery that goes wrong when one of them shoots a civilian, causing the trigger-happy criminal to be exiled from the gang. The James-Younger gang don’t kill the innocent; but rather it’s the undiscriminating Pinkertons, hot on their tails, who are the true criminals, unleashing their fire on anything or anyone that stands in their way.
Episodic in nature, the film isn’t built around any one narrative arc, but rather follows the already-notorious gang through their – at times – even mundane existence, as they go from bank robbery to hiding out, chasing women, attending funerals and dances, and, of course, attempting to dodge the law. And it all ends with the notorious betrayal of Jesse James – the subject of The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, one of the best Westerns in recent years. The feel is almost languorous throughout, demanding a little patience from the audience, before rewarding them with a terrific climactic shoot-out, with plenty of slow-motion shots of spurting blood and reeling, writhing men.
Carefully composed and beautifully shot, with a soundtrack by the legendary Ry Cooder, there are more than enough elements packed in this Western to recommend it. But what makes it a special treat is the chance to rediscover some fine acting from a bunch of Hollywood legends who seem to have lost their way in recent years.
Blackthorn is the assumed name of Butch Cassidy, outlaw of the old West, who in this film survived his famous shoot-out with the Bolivian army in 1908 and is hiding out, waiting to finally make his return to the United States to see his child. When a misunderstanding leads to Cassidy losing his horse and life savings, he is drawn into one last adventure that puts his long-standing moral code to the test.
This film is steeped in the ‘ageing outlaw makes one last stab at glory’ trope. Although conscious of the weight of the myths it deploys, the film does so straightforwardly, without any self-reflexive winks or nods, and this is to the film’s credit. It’s interesting to recall Richard Lester, who, despite being fond of self-conscious japes himself, helmed a Butch and Sundance ‘prequel’ and a beautiful, melancholic epitaph for Robin Hood that, in some ways, this film resembles.
Blackthorn begins in 1927, the year of the first transatlantic telephone call and of the first talking picture. But down in rural Bolivia, there’s not the faintest hint that the jazz age is in full swing. Cassidy assigns the ending of his era to the coming of the railways and big corporations. The frontier was of course declared closed in 1890, so Cassidy is by now well and truly an outlaw out of time.
Cassidy meets the handsome and charismatic Spaniard Eduardo Apodaca and agrees to help him, at first largely for pragmatic reasons. But soon the two become friends and, in the course of their attempts to recover money Eduardo has stolen and to dodge the assassins on his trail, Cassidy re-discovers his lust for adventure.
The flashbacks to the Butch and Sundance days that are interspersed throughout the main narrative were perhaps a misstep: they naturally invite comparison with George Roy Hill’s legendary 1969 film. But they do highlight the strength and subtlety of Stephen Rea’s performance as Mackinley, who, with the passing of the years, transforms from dogged detective of the Pinkerton agency to a near-nihilistic derelict, swilling chicha straight from the bottle.
The Western has usually been the preserve of self-sufficient male characters. The women typically stay back at the ranch, threatening to tie the men to the spot with their apron strings. It seems as though Blackthorn will go this way: Cassidy outlines his view that there’s no greater riches to aspire to than being ‘your own man’ and the depiction of Yana, Cassidy’s much younger, seemingly subservient Bolivian mistress may irk some. But in one of the film’s later scenes, when Cassidy feels forced to justify his outlaw past, he explains that he’s never killed anyone in cold blood. In contrast, in one of the flashbacks, Etta Place, Sundance’s lover and the mother of Cassidy’s child, efficiently dispatches three of their adversaries, whom Cassidy has wounded during a gunfight. Furthermore, Cassidy’s adversaries on his last adventure are ruthless female assassins. These femmes fatales seem less an expression of the Western’s traditional misogyny than an admission that the grasping, avaricious threadbare conditions can all too easily cheapen life, turning one into a hardened cynic, whose wealth can only be prised from their cold dead hands.
Films with a ‘buddy’ narrative have often prompted academic interpretations of the homoerotic aspects lurking beneath the manly surface. In a film where Cassidy, in an attempt to allay Eduardo’s saddle sores, spits into his hand and rubs his saliva into the cleavage of his friends buttocks, telling him ‘your ass is softer ‘n a book-keeper’s’, one hardly needs to reach for Jacques Lacan to elucidate the subtext. Cassidy constantly looks back to his friendship with Sundance, and in his memories, Etta is depicted right from the start as a beautiful disruption to this manly camaraderie.
The Bolivian landscape is breathtakingly beautiful: we see verdant green hills, a dusty desert and abandoned mine, vast rock outcrops, and there’s a memorably suspenseful sequence set among the Uyuni salt flats - exactly the sort of landscape that is rarely portrayed on film, and that, in its desolate, dreamlike urgency recalls certain moments from Kurosawa’s Dersu Uzala. There’s also some curious use of the zoom throughout the film that perhaps reflects the influence of the Spaghetti Western, although Gil’s measured, economical style is a far cry from the operatic style of A Fistful of Dollars or the grime-spattered histrionics of Django Kill!. The score, though effective, at times verges on something that Mark Knopfler might have composed, but there’s also a fantastic scene where Cassidy and Eduardo set out on a lengthy trek during which Cassidy plays a gloriously out of tune version of the folk standard ‘Sam Hall’ on a ukulele.
Director Mateo Gil is better known as a scriptwriter (he worked on both the Spanish and American versions of Vanilla Sky), and in many respects Blackthorn is very much a script-based film. The film has been well cast and features fantastic performances throughout. Indeed, Gil’s often matter-of-fact, character-driven approach is perfect for the material. We never feel that the film is puffed up with a sense of its own importance, or even that it’s trumpeting how beautiful the on-screen landscapes are. There’s a plot twist towards the end of the film that doesn’t just add intrigue, it’s the payoff to Gil’s belief that the Western is ‘a truly moral genre’. But it’s a morally complex genre; Cassidy hasn’t always practised what he preaches, especially where romantic passions are concerned. There are no clear-cut heroes and villains here, although some are far more villainous than others.
The decision to set almost all of the film in Bolivia, and to depict impoverished miners and the native Quechua population without exoticism, means that this is very much a Western from an outsider’s perspective. It also means that it is free of the visual clichés associated with the genre. A Western in possession of a social conscience, but without lapsing into preaching or patronising, this is an unassuming film in some ways, but ultimately it’s self-assured, elegiac and sometimes strikingly beautiful.
John A. Riley
A Deviant View of Cinema – Film, DVD & Book Reviews