The Burrowers (2008)
★★★ / ★★★★
Boiled down to its essence, J.T. Petty’s horror western “The Burrowers” explores the white man’s fear of The Other: Irishmen, black folks, indigenous Indians—these may as well have been monsters, less than animals, in the eyes of the white man. And in this story, there are literal monsters that come out at night to take people from their homes and feed on them. The white man and those whom he considers to be inferior must team up and learn to work together in order to eliminate an immediate threat. Although certainly meant to be for entertainment, the work makes a rather critical statement about how America works in a nutshell.
I relished its macabre sense of humor. The story takes place in the Dakota Plains 1879 and the first shot involves a marriage proposal. The beautiful woman goes missing and Coffey (Karl Geary), desperately in love, goes on a mission to retrieve her. For a long while the picture is told through the prism of optimism. These men in cowboy hats sporting guns and can-do attitude surely must save the day. They may have their differences but surely they can learn to see past the pettiness and get the job done. After all, lives—innocent lives, especially since the missing includes children—are more important than squabbles, right?
Well, it seems Petty has learned a thing or two from Hitchcock at his peak. Halfway through as bodies begin to pile up, we start to question that perhaps the messages that the filmmaker wishes to impart about America and its deeply racist history is more important than following the expected parabolic path. Notice the manner in which the pacing slows to a snail’s pace somewhere in the middle as characters are shuffled around like a deck of cards. Those who we believe must make it to the very end for the sole purpose of plot are now cold underneath the ground—well, actually, warm because the creatures in question tend to paralyze their soon-to-be form of nourishment and bury them alive so their victims’ organs can rot before the big feast—and those we think will not make it far remain thriving. Fresh decisions like these manage to keep the picture afloat despite sudden changes tone and pacing.
Although not especially memorable, I enjoyed the look of the creatures. It is the correct decision to keep them hidden in shadows and tall grass for the majority of the picture. Instead, we hear the chittering sounds they make before the attack. Is this their form communication? A way to intimidate? Can they help it? On the occasional moments we see them front and center, I was reminded of naked mole rats on steroids. There is gore but emphasis is not on the amount of blood and how they spurt out of arteries. Rather, what’s important is what they do to the human bodies once they have one trapped. Thus, we believe why these creatures have existed even before the white man arrived in America—and even before man existed. The burrowers are not only ancient but also formidable. The screenplay is so elastic, it even has room to make a statement about man’s destructive role in the environment.
“The Burrowers” may not be big on overt scares but it is willing to take on a number of ideas that will continue to remain relevant for years to come. And because some of the topics it touches involve racism, racial injustice, destruction of nature, and the like, that in itself is horror. Most modern horror films do not even dream of being about something. Some simply strive to deliver shock and call it a day. Here’s one with a point to make.
Never Grow Old (2019)
★★ / ★★★★
The thing about westerns is that many are revenge stories in their core. And so it is often a challenge to tell a story in a fresh way when ruffians (Josh Cusack, Sam Louwyck, Camille Pistone) arrive in a frontier town and decide to stay indefinitely. It is apparent about a quarter of the way through that “Never Grow Old,” written and directed by Ivan Kavanagh, lacks both originality and vision; at one point I wondered why the filmmaker felt this particular story needed to be told. Because if the viewer had seen at least five western pictures, it would be easy to determine its ultimate destination. Does it truly require eighty minutes to get there?
An argument can be made that it is not about the destination but the journey. However, the journey is not interesting either. Emile Hirsch plays Patrick Tate, Garlow’s carpenter and undertaker. He lives just outside of town with his pregnant wife (Déborah François) and two young children (Quinn Topper Marcus, Molly McCann). Soon Patrick meets Dutch (Cusack) in the dead of night, the latter having knocked on the former’s door, asking for directions regarding a man with a bounty on his head. It is made clear that Patrick cannot refuse—not only this favor but also future ones. Hirsch plays Patrick with a constant air of desperation. Despite the inconsistent Irish accent, he is able to meet Cusack’s calm intensity.
But the screenplay fails to do anything interesting with these two forces who must clash—morally and physically. It goes on autopilot as bodies pile up when Dutch decides to open a business—a whorehouse that serves alcohol, considered to be a mighty sin by the devout Christians (led by Preacher Pike portrayed by Danny Webb) of Garlow. Violence is paraded on screen—men being shot, a young girl getting raped by an old man, blood mixing with mud, a hanging, among others—and yet there is only minimal drama. The reason is because we do not care about these disposable characters. Most intrigue is generated when Patrick and Dutch are in a room simply exchanging words.
Patrick’s occupation involves building objects and putting corpses in the ground. There is poetry in lending a hand on creation and destruction yet the writer-director does not take advantage of it. Instead, Patrick is consistently shown reacting to situations—merely a tool in a plot so ridden with clichés—until the protagonist is no longer an enigma. Meanwhile, Dutch disappears for long periods in the middle of the film. He appears from time to time to do or say something would-be philosophical. I grew tired of the charade that the material forces upon us.
I enjoyed the look of the picture, particularly when it employs natural light. Scenes shot at night are appropriately dark and menacing. There is a convincing quiet in the darkness, like anything could step out from it. Not even lamps or torches could allay the danger. When the film is not so plot-driven but rather driven by feeling, one cannot help but wonder whether the work might have been better off as a sensory experience: strip away the heavy-handed plot and let the emotions flow, place us directly in a mindset of having to survive in an 1849 frontier town.
Slow West (2015)
★★★ / ★★★★
Sixteen-year-old Jay Cavendish (Kodi Smit-McPhee) travels from Scotland to America so he could be with his one true love, unaware that there is a bounty of two thousand dollars for the heads of Rose (Caren Pistorius) and her father. Silas (Michael Fassbender) offers to aid Jay to reach his destination for a fee of one hundred dollars. Soon, however, a group of bounty hunters have figured out that all they have to do is follow the the boy and his guide and the reward will soon be theirs.
“Slow West,” written and directed by John Maclean, is a western with quirks and so although the pacing deliberately moves at snail’s pace, there are numerous small moments that are quite amusing and entertaining. The western genre is not my cup of tea but this one surprised me on almost all levels, from the pleasing performances to how the story unfolds. The writer-director has a knack for showing beautiful images.
One of the surprises involves the colors having the opportunity to stand out. Because Jay and Silas are constantly on the move, the environment always changes. We notice the hue, texture, and dryness of the desert background, how the water is blown by the wind during a flashback, and how the temperature of the temporary shade of interior structures must be like relative to being outside under the blazing watch of the sun. This is the kind of movie I can watch without sound and it is likely that I will still enjoy it.
I had doubts about the casting of Smit-McPhee. His look is so distinct—some may even claim bizarre because some of his facial features are so large relative to his bone structure—and I have not seen him do anything particularly outstanding. I was glad that these doubts were quickly dispelled. His character is quiet, polished, and thoughtful. I enjoyed Jay’s quiet musings and the way he looks up into the night sky and the stars. This young man is a dreamer and it made me wonder if people like him had a place in the American frontier where a person’s life is determined by a gun pointing at him.
The action sequences are nothing special but they do command a level of tension. The showdown at the very end is the loudest and the most complicated to execute, but the one that I will remember most is the scene in a shop where a couple busts in, pulls out a gun, and demands the owner to hand over the money. The scene resonates because the violence is used to remind the audience that there is a consequence to every death even though we may not remember a person’s name or face right after he or she hits the ground. A sense of melancholy creeps in when we least expect it.
I wished that “Slow West” had been more poetic because that is its strength. There are musings about love, death, and living—with a sense of irony tying them together—but none of these are explored thoroughly or enough to make a lasting impact. Also, I wanted to get a stronger sense of Jay and Silas’ relationship. What they share only becomes really interesting toward the latter third. At one point I imagined how the picture would have been different if Terrence Malick had a hand in co-directing.
The Proposition (2005)
★★★ / ★★★★
After showering the Burns house with bullets, Charlie (Guy Pearce) and Mike (Richard Wilson) sat in front in front of Captain Stanley (Ray Winstone), the man in charge of whoever was responsible for the rape and murder of a woman and her family. Just when Charlie was convinced that only capital punishment was in store for him and his brother, the captain surprised him with a proposition: If Charlie was able to find and kill his brother Arthur (Danny Huston), the leader of the Burns gang currently in hiding, within nine days, both he and Mike would be pardoned of their crimes. Directed by John Hillcoat, “The Proposition” was deceptive because its plot involved a man on a mission to kill another who happened to be of his own blood. While it managed to deliver many scenes of violence, from being impaled by a spear through the chest to bashing one’s skull, what kept it a fascinating experience was its insight, utilizing the sadness of the characters to communicate that some things just had to be done or finished even if that halfway through minds became convinced that the initial course of action was rash or reckless. Captain Stanley was one of the most interesting characters, a man of the law but not above stepping outside of it if he felt necessary, a leader who was intent on “civilizing” the fresh Australian land. As an opponent of disorder, although he had the badge, the gun, the men, and the reputation to work toward his vision, circumstances surrounding the Burns problem proved time and again that he was a bug in a rainforest of starving birds–as powerless as the citizens he vowed to protect. When the camera focused on his wrinkled face and tired eyes, we could sense the inner turmoil in his brain upon realizing that his plan involving Charlie was more complicated than he had anticipated. On top of the stressful nature of his job, he also had to think about his wife, the mousy Martha (Emily Watson), who wanted to know what was going on but was consistently set aside the moment she opened her mouth. What I did find somewhat strange, however, was the screenplay by Nick Cave didn’t really delve into the depths of Charlie ‘s motivations. He did a lot of laying about for most of the picture’s running time and yet he was asked to make a lot critical decisions toward the end. His importance as the film began to wrap up didn’t feel quite earned. But this isn’t to suggest that he wasn’t given some spotlight. Particularly memorable was when he met Jellon Lamb (John Hurt), a smart bounty hunter who happened to have a bit of alcohol in him at the time, and the extended conversation, with threats thrown about here and there, that led to a recommendation of Charles Darwin’s book “On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection.” It was an odd scene but very skillfully executed, especially when the camera fluidly moved from one area to the next as words were being exchanged. Conversely, it stood frozen in its tracks when not a word was uttered which amplified an already high level tension and forced us to consider that perhaps we were milliseconds from witnessing something especially gruesome. I found “The Proposition” admirable because it wasn’t afraid to step inside bizarre territories while remaining true to the lyricism of inhabiting and slowly claiming an unadulterated land and culture. This was best showcased through a dichotomy: a person’s whipping in a “civilized” area and a beautiful a cappella being performed out in the wilderness.
Hannie Caulder (1971)
★★★ / ★★★★
Three bank robbers (Ernest Borgnine, Strother Martin, Jack Elam), while on the run from the police, raped Hannie (Raquel Welch) and killed her husband. To add insult to injury, they burned her home before heading off to do more damage in the west. Homeless and wearing nothing but a poncho, Hannie came across a bounty hunter named Tom Price (Robert Culp). She asked him to teach her how to handle a gun so she could take revenge on the three stooges who ruined her life. Directed by Burt Kennedy, “Hannie Caulder” was no ordinary western because its central character was female. I enjoyed the movie because it was almost as though the filmmakers were aware of the conventions of the genre and they took slight jabs at the rules. The dialogue was smart when it needed to be. For example, Tom Price, a symbol for how men should be like in westerns, quiet, solemn, and in control, told Hannie that whatever was done to her was something she would forget over time. She insisted otherwise and explained why she wouldn’t simply forget. Hannie didn’t use phrases like “I was raped” or “They killed my husband,” but through her single-minded determination to reach some kind of justice. By allowing the characters to speak what was on their mind, the film became more than about a woman seeking bloody revenge. It became a discussion about the rules of femininity and masculinity, what was expected of the two spheres, and what happened when rules were thrown out the window. All women in the film wore appropriate clothing and were aware of their place in society. But it wasn’t meant to be insulting. Hannie was a shining example of an anomaly, but she didn’t get away with it. When she wore pants for the first time on screen, she had to submerge the pants in water so it would fit her. When walking around town, she was treated by men, even men of the law, like an embarrassment–like a child who wet herself. The film was unexpectedly comedic, too. The bank robbers, who also happened to be brothers, were complete imbeciles. I wondered how they’ve managed to evade the authorities when they were so incompetent. But that was half the fun. It didn’t have to be realistic. What mattered was they had no control over their id. Furthermore, there was a hint of romance between Hannie and Tom, reflected by their walk along the beach during sunset. They strengthened their bond when Tom trained Hannie how to aim a gun and, more importantly, consider what the enemy might be thinking in a life or death situation. It added dimension to the story; a life together was perhaps something our protagonist could look forward to after she had closed the chapter involving the three goons. “Hannie Caulder” was deceptively well-written. It worked as a statement piece and a piece of entertainment.
Cowboys & Aliens (2011)
★ / ★★★★
Jake Lonergan (Daniel Craig) woke up in the middle of the desert unable to remember anything prior to his collapse, not even his name. In a state of confusion, he looked at his left arm and there was a bulky bracelet around it. Despite its imposing appearance, it seemed harmless enough. So, he made his way to Absolution, a mining town, its economy depended on Woodrow Dolarhyde’s cattle business (Harrison Ford). The residents feared him greatly so they allowed his son, Percy (Paul Dano), to act like a fool and bully others. But not Jake. When Percy pulled a gun on the amnesiac, the young man was greeted with a knee in the groin. Later, when Jake and Woodrow met to settle an old score, spaceships flew over Absolution, fired destructive laser beams, and kidnapped select citizens. Based on the graphic novel by Scott Mitchell Rosenberg, “Cowboys & Aliens,” was a somnolent lullaby despite the staccato of horses’ hooves, swooshing Indian arrows, and thundering explosions followed by beautiful hovering dust. When certain characters met their demise, usually induced by the aliens’ sharp claws, I felt no emotion toward the person struggling for his last breath. This was because the characters were not given enough depth. More time was dedicated to the characters riding horses, squinting at something from a distance, and arguing which was the best course of action in order to track down the extraterrestrial base. The script didn’t help the otherwise good actors who were very capable of embodying heroes we could root for despite forcefully convenient plot devices. Jake and Woodrow were motivated by very different things which was appropriate considering that each figure symbolized a different type of hero in the American Old West. The former wanted to know the truth about who he was while the latter hoped to rescue his only son, internal and external motivations. Yet when the two interacted, the dialogue was so egregious, it sounded like Jake and Woodrow were not really speaking to each other but through one another. Jake’s stoicism and Woodrow’s irascibility became exasperating. I wondered what else the material had to offer, if any, and when, or if, the sluggish pacing would eventually pick up and get the adventure going (or started). Furthermore, the aliens were not very interesting villains. They landed on Earth to look for gold and extract them. Did they need the metal for food, as fertilizer to sustain their dying planet, or was it some kind of a panacea for their diseased or dying comrades? We weren’t given the exact details. But why not? I don’t know if the original material offered a reason, but even if it did not, that was no excuse. Somewhere in the middle of the film, Jake began to have feelings for Ella (Olivia Wilde), a woman who seemed to know Jake’s history. Their feelings for each other poisoned the movie. Not only did their relationship not make any sense, their scenes together took away time from possible explanations about the aliens. This was another example of using romance to band-aid holes in the story that ought to be dealt with directly and astutely. “Cowboys and Aliens,” directed by Jon Favreau, was a failed mash-up of the western and science-fiction genres. It offered no magic nor a sense of adventure.
True Grit (2010)
★★★ / ★★★★
Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld), a plucky fourteen-year-old girl, was adamant about finding Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin), her father’s cold-blooded killer, and getting even. She left her grieving mother and siblings at home while she went to town to hire a competent bounty hunter. She crossed paths with an alcoholic U.S. Marshal Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges) who was first reluctant to tackle the task. Mattie desperately wanted him because she claimed he had “true grit” or the right spirit she was searching for. Mattie and Cogburn were accompanied by a Texas Ranger named LaBoeuf (Matt Damon) who also wanted to bring the criminal to justice. The western genre is normally not my cup of tea, but I couldn’t help but enjoy this film. Steinfeld’s energetic performance as a headstrong girl who wanted vengeance instantly caught my interest especially the very amusing scene when she tried to sell back the horses her late father bought. In just one simple scene, Steinfeld established that Mattie was intelligent, resourceful, and unafraid to bluff when the occassion called for it. She saw adults as untrustworthy so she had to be self-reliant and use fear to motivate others. Adults saw her as a child who didn’t know any better. On the positive side, she could get away with certain things that older folks simply would not. Much of the picture’s humor was embedded in the scenes where Cogburn and LaBoeuf tried to ascertain which one of them was the more effective lawman. Cogburn, aging and a drunkard, just didn’t know when to quit while he was ahead and LaBoeuf was difficult to take seriously because he walked around as if he already deserved to be respected. Bridges was successful in delivering the softer side of a man who wanted minimal contact with the world. Meanwhile, Damon complemented Bridges’ character by wanting to be seen, heard and admired. It was obvious that both were having great fun with their roles. As opposite as Cogburn and LaBoeuf were, the two could make a great duo when the situation turned grim. I admired the look of the film because I felt transported to that era. The contrasting images of the blistering hot desert and the bone-chilling snowy nights not only were great visually but they reflected what the characters felt, especially Mattie since we saw the story from her perspective, during their arduous journey. I just wished we had a chance to get to know Chaney a bit more in order to make room for another layer of complexity. Based on Charles Portis’ novel and directed by Ethan and Joel Coen, “True Grit” was a straightforward and character-driven revenge story. Simple is not something I’m used to when watching Coen brothers picture. Maybe that’s the irony.
★★★★ / ★★★★
Captain John Boyd (Guy Pearce) had been promoted for successfully infiltrating an enemy line. However, he was not proud of himself because he played dead in the battlefield while his comrades met their demise. Capt. Boyd was sent to a fort in the California’s snowy Sierra Nevada mountains with seven others (Neal McDonough, David Arquette, Stephen Spinella, Jeffrey Jones, Jeremy Davies, Sheila Tousey, Joseph Running Fox) who guarded the place. When a badly injured soldier (Robert Carlyle) arrived at the fort, he told them that he and his men ate each other in order to survive for three months in utter isolation. I thought this film was simply superb. Even though it was a little rough around the edges such as its sometimes distracting soundtrack, I was impressed with its originality. This picture was a melting pot of various genres. It mainly worked as a horror film because of the Native American’s myth involving the fearsome wendigo, a cannibal whose taste for its fellow man increasingly grows over time. It was also effective in being a dark comedy. Certain scenes were purposely amusing to relieve some of the tension prior to the kill and the graphic images of eating or destroying human flesh. One-liners such as, “It’s lonely being a cannibal; it’s tough making friends,” arrived at the most unexpected moments and I could not help but smile. Lastly, it succeeded as a western because it paid attention to the land and its impact on the individuals who occupied it. The main character was conflicted because he was torn between survival and his moral code. Watching the events unfold was such a joy because the ideas were executed with confidence. It was not afraid to take risks and embrace the bizarre. It could easily have been a one-dimensional horror movie about cannibalism in the mountains were characters make one stupid decision after another. (Or worse, attempting to climb down the mountain to “find help.”) But since the premise was so exotic, it took advantage of what we are not normally aware of such as our potential lack of knowledge involving the Indian myth. “Ravenous,” written by Ted Griffin and directed by Antonia Bird, is an overlooked gem with a perfect measure of menace and wit. It might have done poorly in the box office but gained a deserved cult status since then. However, I must warn that this film is not for everyone. It might make some people uncomfortable because of the subject matter or the images of human flesh being eaten raw or even cooked in a cauldron. I loved every minute of it because it was not afraid to show us something different. It makes Tim Burton’s “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street” and other commerical cannibalism movies I have seen look like child’s play.
Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969)
★★ / ★★★★
I feel like I’m the only person in the world who didn’t enjoy this western classic about two fugitives, Butch Cassidy (Paul Newman) and the Sundance Kid (Robert Redford), who decided to go to Bolivia in order to escape the law and rob banks there instead. Directed by George Roy Hill, Newman and Redford were definitely charismatic and their characters had a brotherly chemistry without even trying; unfortunately, everything about it was so blasé to the point where I thought I was watching boys acting on their id rather than men trying to accomplish something that they could be proud of (no matter unlawful such things may be). Although it had a lot of energy especially during the chase and gun-wielding scenes, the movie had no idea when to turn down the energy and focus on the characters so that the audiences would know more about the two leads, such as where they came from, why the turned to the life of crime and what was it about their relationship that made them dependent on each other. The romantic angle regarding Katharine Ross as Etta Place was a mere filler for me. Those scenes lacked passion and sensuality so I was somewhat uncomfortable watching it. I wish Redford and Newman’s characters had more edge or danger instead of just being likable because there were times when I thought the film glorified violence. Except for the final minutes, I didn’t feel like their actions had any sort of consequences so the movie became one-dimensional for too long. I expected a lot coming into this film because I’ve heard from both critics and audiences alike that it was nothing short of exemplary. Perhaps I was in a bad mood when I saw the picture, I don’t know, but it didn’t engage me like “Bonnie and Clyde,” with which it had a number of parallels. I wouldn’t have minded the (very light) humor so much if it let the darkness took over from time to time. It’s a shame because I really do love watching Newman and Redford because I think they’re very talented actors. Luckily, they star together again in “The Sting,” a movie that really showcases the two of them as a whole package backed up with superior writing and direction (also by George Roy Hill).
★★★★ / ★★★★
I’ve always wondered about this classic western about three men (Clint Eastwood, Morgan Freeman, Jaimz Woolvett) who decided to hunt down two other men who cut up a woman’s face (Anna Levine) for the price of $1000, but I was always reluctant to see it because the western genre is my least favorite. I’m glad to have finally given it the chance it more than deserved because it absolutely blew me away. Every scene felt like a crucial piece of the puzzle in order to understand why certain things were happening and why certain things must happen. I truly identified with Eastwood as a man who used to be a drunk and a killer because every fiber of his being was fighting his inner demons regarding the people he killed for no good reason. In every frame, I felt the fierce passion in his eyes, the wounded soul in his voice and the subtleties of his body movements; it made me believe that he really was a changed man. But eventually, it was nice to see why he did not want to be that kind of person anymore, not just because he now had a family, saw the error of his ways, and wanted to set a good example, but because that person really was engulfed in such darkness whose sole motivation was to kill. All of the supporting actors were exemplary such as the villanous authority of the town played by Gene Hackman, the leader of the prostitutes played by Frances Fisher, and the kid who was so enthusiastic about killling even though he had myopia (Woolvett). Although this was a western film, I was surprised because it was very anti-violence. Even though there were shooting involved, a requisite in most western pictures, the thesis of having no honor in killing was always at the forefront. I never thought I would ever be interested in watching more western films, but after seeing “Unforgiven,” perhaps I just might. This film will definitely set the standard of my eventual foray into westerns. I can honestly say that this deserved its Best Picture and Best Director win at the Oscars because despite the film looking a bit dated, the emotions are still raw and quite timeless. Complexity within its deceitful simplicity is this film’s forté and it succeeds in every single way. That’s a rarity.
★ / ★★★★
Western is my least favorite genre so I’m probably not the best person to listen to when it comes to reviewing a western film. I’m most familiar with modern westerns like “Brokeback Mountain,” “No Country for Old Men,” and “There Will Be Blood.” However, I know how to ascertain and elucidate why I like or dislike a movie. “Appaloosa” did not work for me for two main reasons: it lacked focus to be thoroughly engaging and it did not have enough material to tell an insightful story. While Ed Harris (who also wrote and directed the film) and Viggo Mortensen did a good job in their respective roles, I felt like their relationship wasn’t explored enough. Were they merely friends or are they more like brothers? Although the tone of the film is masculine, most great westerns that I’ve seen leave room for softness and vulnerability (or otherwise, “feminine” qualities). If walls are consistently up, how are the audiences supposed to identify with and understand the characters? Renée Zellweger didn’t do a bad job but she sounds like she’s from a completely different film. The story focused on her a bit too much while sacrificing potentially rousing action scenes. However, I did like the occasional comedic moments because it shows that the actors and filmmakers are not afraid to have fun with the project. Still, it doesn’t change the fact that I did not like this film because I caught myself zoning out from time to time. Whatever happened to featuring vast landscapes and the poetry of brotherhood? Is Harris simply trying to offer something different to the genre or did he clearly miss the point? I have patience when it comes to certain pictures when most people do not. I’m guessing that a casual moviegoer, especially a person who is not partial to western films, will be bored out of his or her mind.