In all my recent conversations about the Western genre, whenever the subject of Dwight Yoakam’s only directorial debut comes up, it is already met with a negative reaction. I saw the movie years ago and have retained fond memories of it so it was time to test that recollection and see if it still holds up or if I’m in camp with the majority opinion. The answer is that I still like it. Here are four reasons why.
1. Dwight’s sincerity as a director and performance carry the picture. He may not be dressed accurately (historical authenticity purists will have issues with his wardrobe) but he clearly has a great love for the west along with a knowledge and reverence for the genre. His story might be meandering at times, it may fall flat in others, but it’s so genuine in others that I have to admire it. I’m thinking of scenes like the hot air balloon romance between Yoakam and Fonda. I’m thinking of his elegiac score which has been stuck in my head for days. I’m thinking of his own performance, which is nuanced and heartfelt. This is a labor of love.
2. The supporting cast is terrific to watch. Yoakam combines some very odd touches for the genre, a young Vince Vaughn as the villain and Pee Wee Paul Reubens as his sidekick, with some veterans of the genre and old Hollywood like Bo Hopkins (in what must be his best late career role), Bud Cort, and Matt Clark. The film is also packed with fun cameos from Billy Bob Thornton to Warren Zevon and Peter Fonda. Some of their appearances feel a little random but, in a good way, it also feels like Dwight assembled his friends to make a story he cared about.
3. It’s not easy to revise the genre and most attempts come off as indulgent. Dwight clearly understands the tradition but pushes it in a new direction, making a movie that doesn’t always work but definitely feels original. In many ways more successful than the overly quirky Dead Man, South of Heaven shows us some things we never saw in a Western before like a bad guy getting his nuts sewn back together or Dwight’s deputy wearing a woman’s skirt the entire film. Somehow Yoakam pulls these eccentric ideas off; they don’t feel forced like they might in a Coen Brothers movie.
4. The film may take a long time to get moving and certainly drags in the middle but when the action comes, its well worth the wait. The fight sequences are messy and realistic. They don’t play out with perfect choreography but with the chaos of human passion and folly. I particularly like the ending fight. It’s wild.
I’d never claim South of Heaven, West of Hell to be a great Western. But most of those people I’ve talked to out there are wrong. It is a good one.
Watched on Tubi