Return of the Western? Movies reviewed: The Magnificent Seven, Brimstone #TIFF16
Hi, this is Daniel Garber at the Movies for culturalmining.com and CIUT 89.5 FM.
Is the Hollywood Western dead? Or is it back from the dead? As a genre, I thought old-fashioned westerns faded away in the 1960s and 70s, despite a few last-gasp efforts to revive it.
So imagine my surprise when the first public screening I saw at TIFF — as well as the last one — were Westerns. They were superficially similar, but very different in substance. So this week I’m looking at those two westerns: a multi-ethnic reboot about a shoot’em-up posse, and a feminist rewrite about a fire-and-brimstone preacher.
The Magnificent Seven
Dir: Antoine Fuqua
Rose Creek is a god-fearing mining town in the old west, complete with sheriff, church, and saloon. One day a church meeting is interrupted by frightening incident. A bad man – accompanied mean by gunmen – declares the town now belongs to a robber barren named Pogue. They have one week to hand it all over or leave town. And to drive his point home, he unceremoniously shoots anyone who objects.
The people are in despair until a lawman arrives on horseback. Chisolm (Denzel Washington) says he can put together a team that will defend the town for its rightful owners. He just needs to be paid. They agree, and he sets out to find his soldiers. And what a colourful group they are. First is Faraday, a card shark (Chris Pratt) already in town. He’s a smooth-talking swindler but quick on the trigger. Vasquez is a criminal on the run. Goodnight Robichaud (Ethan Hawke) is a sharpshooter from the confederate army with PTSD. He works the rodeo circuit with Billy, a Korean knife thrower. They’re joined by Jack, a bearlike bounty hunter who lives in a log cabin, and Red Harvest, a warrior armed with bow, arrow and spear, but far from his people. Together they are the “Magnificent Seven”.
To counter them, robber baron Bartholomew Bogue (Peter Saarsgard) recruits a hundred heavily armed men, complete with horses, rifles, and a Gatling gun. They line up on a hillside waiting for the attack. Can seven men defeat 100 bad guys and save the town? And which of them will survive this battle royale?
The Magnificent Seven is a remake of a remake – the 1960 spaghetti western based on Kurusawa’s The Seven Samurai (1954) – and it shows its age. There were very few surprises in this movie and it had a mechanical feel. Here’s the shoot out, there’s the recruiting scenes, and here comes the big battle. I like the multiracial cast – diversity on the screen is always a good thing– but aside from their looks and their weapons their background never really enters the storyline. (Apparently the director considers women an ethnic group, too, so there’s one token woman shooting alongside the rest.) The movie has an all-star cast, but you can tell they’re doing it for the fun of it (and the money) not to stretch their acting chops. Neither does director Antoine Fuqua – known for films like Training Day. This one does not measure up.
Even so, I can enjoy a movies for its good shootouts, explosions and mayhem. Take it for what it is – an entertaining, though instantly forgettable, western. It’s OK, but nothing special.
Wri/Dir: Martin Koolhoven
Elizabeth (Dakota Fanning) is a young woman who lives in a small California town in the old west, complete with sheriff, church and saloon.
She’s a respected midwife, but mute, so her 5-year-old daughter serves as her translator, her tiny voice conveying her mom’s very adult messages. But things go wrong when a fire-and-brimstone preacher enters town. The Reverend (Guy Pierce) says there are sinners among us, and they will be punished. Soon after, Elizabeth is forced to deliver a premature infant right in front of the pulpit. To save the mother’s life she is forced to abort the male baby. This sparks a furor in the town: with an angry man carrying the torch, goaded on by the preacher’s words. How dare she save the life of a woman over that of a baby boy? That’s God’s decision, not hers.
But it soon becomes clear that this is a small battle in a much bigger fight. The preacher is out to get Elizabeth, and only the two of them know why. The preacher is willing to torture — or even murder — anyone who gets gets in his way. She refuses to give in and proves a powerful opponent. What is their connection, their history? Why is she mute? What brought her to this town? And what secrets do they hide?
Brimstone is told in an unusual way, in a series of biblical chapters, like Revelations and Exodus. Each successive chapter takes place before the previous one, so you only understand the meaning of the last scene until you see the next one. The story follows her homelife as a girl with a strict father and an abused mother (Carice van Houten). She learns the facts of life from two wounded gunslingers she keeps hidden in her barn. We also find about her life as a young woman in another town’s cathouse, and how and why she left there.
Dakota Fanning plays the lead as teenager, young woman and mother, and she’s completely believable in all three. Guy Pearce is chilling as the horribly malevalent preacher. The movie is a scathing indictment of the treatment of women in America, by religion, by society, and by men in general.
Brimstone is troubling, disturbing and shocking, especially for a western. It doesn’t shy away from hard-to-handle issues. I had to turn my head from the screen, it was so horrific in a few scenes. It is violent in a way the Magnificent Seven isn’t, even though Seven has a huge amount of killing, while death is rarer in Brimstone. I don’t want to give the details away, since it depends on the revelations of the story, but let me just say it is not for the faint of heart. Brimstone is a fantastic, heart-wrenching drama with a lot to say.
The Magnificent Seven is playing now, check you local listings; and hopefully Brimstone will be released later this year. This is Daniel Garber at the Movies, each Friday morning, on CIUT 89.5 FM and on my website, culturalmining.com