Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Walter Hill's WILD BILL

"This town reminds me of something from the Bible."
"Which part?"
"The part right before God gets angry." 

I finally came around to Walter Hill's little seen (or, in other terms, flop) Wild Bill not simply due to its star being Jeff Bridges, which should in all reasonable estimation be enough reason to see any film, but because of Bridges' precent star turn as Rooster Cogburn in True Grit.  I needed another fix of a gorram gunslinging bastard done right by Bridges, and in that small respect Hill's film from a decade and a half before didn't disappoint.  Another factor in common is the use of that iconic song 'Leaning, Leaning, Leaning on the everlasting arm' that is used in True Grit (or, for you classic film people, Night of the Hunter).  Aside from these two factors, and a good deal of dead people, the two films have little else in common.  Certainly that the recent Coen brothers film is far and away the superior film.

But is Hill's film worth seeing?  That depends - on if you're a big fan of Westerns, forgiving of Hill's pretentions with the genre this time around (and he would continue again, homaging Red Harvest and Yojimbo for Last Man Standing a year later), and just enjoy seeing Bridges killing the living fuck out of anyone who crosses his path.  This isn't to say this treatment of Wild Bill Hickock makes him particularly brutal... that is unless someone tries to pick a fight, to which Bill always comes out on top. 

 What I liked, at least at first, was that for all the people Bill kills (ho-ho), he really doesn't go out of his way to do it.  He has so many people picking fights and making challenges that it becomes like an annoyance.  And, sometimes, to his detriment when he kills the deputy by accident, one a handful of times he really regrets his killing (that is to say he pauses and tears a bit... and then goes on his way).

He carries a legend, and it is something of a burden; when he arrives in Deadwood (some relation to the show of the same name, though not at the same time, save for the dirty-hell feeling to the town) he gets into opium... a lot.  So much that his few friends- Calamaty Jane, John Hurt's beleaguered Englishman, James Gammon's long-time companion with so much grit as to be made of wood- barely see him as he goes off to the Chinese part of town to get his smoke on.  But there's also the weirdly-awkward David Arquette (both in character and performance) who has a bone to pick with Wild Bill as he killed the man who could've been his new-daddy with his Mom (all-too-little seen Diane Lane), whom Bill had an affair with as well.  

Hill's technique in the film, the reason I mention pretensions before, is that he's not content to make just a straightforward western.  This should be commendable and perhaps is, but it just didn't come off well for me.  It's a style akin to what one might see years later (or in 2009) with Francis Ford Coppola's Tetro, but in reverse: here the film is shot with good, clean 35mm film, and then flashbacks are shot with (intentionally) shoddy video, black and white, and with angles that look like a film school student getting his hands on a camcorder after watching a shitload of dutch angles.  

We're meant to be taken into a time and place from Bill's past that is jarring, hallucinatory, but it felt fake and trying too hard to be "artful", when in reality the film works best when it just sticks to its figurative guns and is a Western in the way that Samuel Fuller's Forty Guns was: traditional, fun, and knowing its genre and audience.  When he tries to be all Jim Jarmusch it's just unconvincing, despite some initial interest with an Indian tribe talking to Bill.

I'm also mixed on the performances.  Of course Bridges is the reason, if nothing else, to see the film as he makes this dour and rather nasty character, albeit with a whole lotta demons inside of his very human and broken self (both by doing so much killing and by his glaucoma), that he's compulsively watchable.  I loved his look, his mannerisms, his big moustache, and how he has some moments of dark humor like when he suddenly springs up a gun in Arquette's face when he tries to make a move on Bill during one of his opium binges.  

But with Ellen Barkin I felt like she was misscast; perhaps she was great in auditions or even rehearsals, yet in front of the camera she tries to hard to be a bad-ass (certainly not as bad as Sharon Stone, but close).  And while I mentioned Arquette before I can't stress enough how warped his delivery is, as if he's play-acting a cowboy; he turned out much better in Scream as a sheriff since that was sorta a comedy.  Hurt and Gammon do alright in their roles, but unfortunately so little time is given to the great Bruce Dern, James Remar and Keith Carradine it's hard to give them a fair shake.  Christina Applegate is... what the fuck's she doing here?

Wild Bill is perhaps not as bad as you've heard, but then again I'm not sure what you have heard (it does have a negative Rotten-Tomatoes average, something like a 37%, so there's that against it).  It was never boring, had some (in FILM) good cinematography and there was a strange tension that builds when Arquette's character gets his posse- all far more bad-ass than him- when they have Bill surrounded in a bar, everyone else in town out on a gold hunt, and don't kill him right away but toy with the expectation of death.  And the shoot-outs, sometimes fast and frenetic in speed if not shooting and editing (though sometimes so) are fun to watch.  

I wish Hill had a better grasp of his flashback scenes, and letting some of the casting get away from his better senses.  It's best seen as an entertaining curio, something that passes the time pretty fast at 92 minutes on a weeknight, and another showcase for Bridges to show his 'Grit' as a bad-ass.

But I don't need to remind you which place I'm 'Leaning'.  Ho-ho.  

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