Sunday, February 17, 2008

Two Westerns

I enjoy movies that stay with you, even if they put you in a dark mood for a few days. I'm one of those filmgoers for whom substance is important, and a film that is forgotten as soon as you walk out of the theater or hit the eject button is usually not worth the time it took to sit through. Luckily, I can usually find some scrap of meaning in a movie (even if I have to bring it myself), but even then it doesn't work if that meaningfulness is buried under truckloads of sentiment. I was thinking about this last night as I pondered two very different Westerns I viewed within the last couple of weeks.

Before watching the disc, I read Elmore Leonard's short story "3:10 to Yuma". Almost a kind of "Waiting for Godot" in spurs, it is the soul of simplicity. A poor simple rancher must get a killer on a train at an appointed time. The killer's gang is out there somewhere, determined to see that it doesn't happen. Within the confines of a hotel room, the killer is the voice of existential reason. Take a bribe, look the other way, and you will live and be so much the richer for your trouble. The rancher struggles between choice and necessity.

The recent remake of "3:10 to Yuma" buries this plot beneath so many layers of crud, sentiment and hardware that it almost made me want to cry. Of course now the killer is a sort of Ubermensch, in his little black outfit, spouting bible verses that he learned when his momma abandoned him in a railroad waiting room. The rancher, of course, is a wounded warrior, a Civil War veteran who ran when he should have fought and who now must redeem himself in his son's eyes. And of course the special effects department went into overdrive, supplying enough guns and squibs to re-stage an entire Civil War battle as the two men, now apparently buddies, beat cheeks for the train amidst a hail of gunfire that makes Butch and the Kid's last run look like a walk in a light sprinkle. Overdone and eminently forgettable.

"There Will Be Blood", apparently loosely based on an Upton Sinclair novel, suffers from no such excess. The language and diction is appropriately turn of the century, with that precision of speech that is beautiful to the ears, even though as we reach the end of the film, Daniel Day-Lewis' John Huston impersonation gets pretty heavy.

Daniel Plainview is a classic misanthrope, who brings new levels to the term "conflicted". He begins the film literally down in a hole, in a dank dusty silver mine pit underneath the New Mexico desert. We don't even hear a human voice for a good 10-15 minutes. He longs to get rich so that he can go far away, away from any human contact because, as he tells his (supposed) long-lost brother bluntly, "I hate people." His monologue in the dark, his ode to misanthropy late in the movie is a classic, like Kurtz in "Apocalypse Now" telling Captain Willard of the piles of hacked-off childrens arms that brought a fundamental shift in his thinking.

You see the world from behind Plainview's increasingly jaded eyes as people come into his life, provide some glimmer of hope or recognition, and then fail miserably to conform to his expectations. There is a (supposed) son, a (supposed) brother, and a young desert Elmer Gantry with whom Plainview wrestles (literally and figuratively) in a humiliating battle of wills.

The acting is superb, the story builds slowly, with layers of complexity, the emotion is visceral, not sentimental. There was only one slight disappointment for me, which I won't speak of, as I am still puzzling out whether the action was, in the circumstances, appropriate. It is the kind of dark, uncompromising, kick-in-the-gut film that comes along very rarely. If you like cinematic novels, rather than light and forgettable filler, you should see this movie.

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