Each Monday, I share reviews of Westerns I’m studying to prepare for making 12 Westerns in 12 Months during 2020. I am watching these films not from an audience perspective but as a filmmaker, as a student of the genre.
Week Thirteen: The Duel & Goin’ South
This film has been on my watch list for a long while now for one reason: they filmed at the same town in Mississippi where we shot scenes for my first Western Blood Country. And that remained the only reason I had reached the end of this movie.
There are hints along its runtime of what this film could have been. The plot is too packed full of things when a more stripped down narrative would have been more efficient. Woody Harrelson’s cult preacher thing has its creepy moments but in the end adds nothing to what the film turns into. Once it finally does reveal the key plot, I thought “The whole movie should have been about this! Why did you waste so much time?”
The Most Dangerous Game direction it takes is far more interesting than the first half, which muddles along. However, that all gets rushed by the time The Duel gets to it. The final fight between Woody and Liam Hemsworth begins with thrillingly only to end up silly. Side note: there’s no way a person could push a boulder off a ledge like that. On one of my productions, we tried to move a boulder half that size with three groan men and it wouldn’t budge. Finally, we had to use a pry bar to move the damn thing a foot. Of course, none of our last names are Hemsworth…
To my dismay, little worked in the film from that flat, lead performance to Woody’s uneven villain to the female performances which just feel like an unnecessary add-on. As I said before, it was interesting to see how they used the same place I filmed and the greatest takeaway from watching The Duel is that I could definitely film there again and get more out of the location. They did more with it than I thought was possible (with more resources of course) but that’s a great lesson for these Westerns.
Oh and I have to say it was fun to see an actor I don’t like get busted in the mouth by Liam Hemsworth without even getting a single line of dialog. That almost made it worth the time.
Seen on Netflix.
How can you beat this cast? I mean we’ve got Nicholson, Christopher Lloyd, Danny DeVito, Mary Steenburgen, and John Belushi in a Western? Upon approach, I thought this had to be some underrated gem. Unfortunately, there’s a reason that terrific ensemble doesn’t get mentioned as much as you’d think…
The film is neither good nor bad. It falls in that middle territory and I keep trying to figure out why and where it went wrong. One review said that Nicholson certainly maintains a consistent “tone” and I’d agree with that. The problem may be that that tone isn’t very effective. It’s somewhere between goofy and sincere and never really lands well on either end.
Even the look of the film doesn’t really support its material. It’s a world of brown with occasional blue skies. I felt like I was watching the kin to The Hired Hand, not the cousin of Blazing Saddles.
I found myself trying to laugh but never really did. I certainly smiled a lot because Nicholson is infinitely watchable. It’s fun, if only in a curious way, to see how he directs himself. And the rest of the cast all have their moments, except for Belushi who really is wasted in this movie as most of the other commentators have pointed out.
Going back to how I felt about another Western/Comedy last week, this film shares a central issue with Support Your Local Gunfighter: the lead is too much of a comic sidekick. There’s no “straight man”. Steenburgen gets the closest to filling that void but Nicholson overwhelms her on screen. I understand what Jack was trying to do here but I think he would have been more successful if his character Moon wasn’t quite as crazy and a little more grounded. A trend I’m seeing proves that for many comedies, having a central, mostly “straight” character surrounded by the more whacky support may be the way to go, that is unless you’re the Marx Brothers.
Whenever the film really slows down and gets intimate, it has brief moments of real beauty and I wish Nicholson had made a straight up romantic Western here. But alas, this is the film and I’m certainly glad I finally saw it if only to learn lessons from what it doesn’t accomplish.
Seen on Amazon Prime.