Starring: Kurt Russell, Patrick Wilson, Matthew Fox, Lili Simmons, Richard Jenkins, David Arquette
Director: S. Craig Zahler
First off, I was a bit cheeky with the poster this time. You can buy the above here, but it’s not the official poster or DVD cover. The posters for this film do a pretty shit job of conveying what the film is all about, so this gives a better sense of what you’ll be watching. Which is what a poster is supposed to do, right?
In this film, four men head out of town and into an unknown zone to rescue some townspeople who have been abducted by a mysterious tribe.
The men are the grizzled Sheriff (Russell), his aging second Deputy Chicory (Jenkins), a cowboy (Wilson) whose wife was taken and who is recovering from a leg injury, and the man she rejected, the dapper sharp shooter (Fox). The abductees are an outlaw (Arquette) who unwittingly drew the wrath of the tribe into the small town of Bright Hope, Samantha (Simmons) who was acting as doctor to the injured outlaw and the Sherriff’s deputy, all of whom were at the jail at the time.
So far, so classic western genre tropes. But what this film captures that makes it so interesting to me is this: the western is a story about how America sees itself. It’s one of it’s key cultural narratives, about the American spirit and the dream of a new life that might be hard won, but it free. Bright Hope is the name of the tiny frontier town in this film, an apt name. But the western is also about the fears that people lived with when they came to the US and whilst they were colonising and settling in it, namely that there was a supernatural terror just outside their door that daily threatened to swallow them whole, and often did. There are several towns that were razed to the ground multiple times by Native Americans and had to be rebuilt, whilst families were wiped out and survivors had to suddenly fend for themselves. (I’m certainly not advocating the invading population, or their behaviour and actions which engendered this, I’m just pointing out the origins of the western film genre) There was a long period of time where the Native American was thought to have every possible evil imaginable in his possession, and the idea that there was a danger at the door was a very real one that has become part of the cultural consciousness.
With Westerns made in the times of censorship, the horror was demoted and the Native American was the bad guy in the genre, a sanitised version of history. What I love about this film is that it returns to us the feeling of how terrifying the threat was to Americans, historically. The bad guys here are very obviously not the Native American population, but a degenerate enclave so fearsome as to be considered not human. The Sherriff has never heard of them, and happily disregards the advice to not go anywhere near them. Cannibals? That sounds like superstition!
What comes next is a road trip through territory populated by bandits, snakes and other dangers, such as a trigger happy companion and the possible onset of gangrene in the injured mans leg. But they are determined, and as they approach, they come to find out just how badly they’ve bitten off more than they can chew. I don’t want to spoil it for you, but … its brutal, violent, and terrifying. And ascribes so closely to historical reports of what happened to people captured by Native Americans that it cannot be an accident. (It is actually a lot closer to what Americans did to native populations, which is food for thought).
More importantly, perhaps, than this is that the film is really good! It’s well paced, really terrifying in places, and each character is subtle and nuanced. I personally loved the second deputy, who was a lovely older man who had an innocence and sweetness, as well as a sense of humour that was often very funny. The Sherriff was great, a natural leader, and the cowboy came across as a good man, with a very real struggle and an honest heart. The dapper sharpshooter was a really great character, stylish to the point that his horse matched his outfit, but genuinely sad when his horse is injured. A complex character. And Samantha, although with less screen time, had some pretty good lines too and was more than a damsel in distress, though there was more chemistry between her and her husband that could have been mined (I think she was a little miscast).
An exciting and horrifying film in equal measure, this western comes highly recommended!
See It If: you’re prepared for some violence, it’s not always easy to watch, but it’s a fantastic film.