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 Thirty Two: Matewan & The Gunfighters
One thing was re-affirmed in this second viewing of Matewan: the film is most certainly a Western, though an unconventional one. Set in a coal mining town instead of the Western frontier, John Sayles uses so many elements of the Western genre to tell another of his regional tales. He has the quiet, stoic sheriff. He has the heavies, who play as much like Western villains as has ever been the case in a movie about unions. He has the gunfights, the stand-offs. He has the question of justice, of moral code.
While watching, I realized that one of my main reasons for returning to this film was the performance by David Strathairn, an actor I’ve paid more attention to since first seeing this. The images alone from the film of Strathairn as the sheriff, standing opposed to higher numbers on those railroad tracks, are enough to inspire me. I was curious to look more closely at his portrayal and see how it might relate to the lawmen in my new movie Texas Red. Sure enough, I felt a direct link to this character and one of my characters specifically. The actor playing that role will certainly need to watch what Strathairn does here. His subtlety, his cynicism, and yet his unflinching courage is so strong. Though he has far less screen time than Chris Cooper (who also amazes in the film), it is Strathairn who steals the picture. If the boy gives the movie its heart, Cooper provides its mind and Strathairn its guts. Another thing that occurred to me is the contrast between David’s character and the main “bad guy”, both WWI veterans, both possible heroes from the war. They’re both equally awkward in their place back in civilization but one has turned to evil and abusive power while the other has settled in his role as the eternal soldier.
Though Sayles submits gets a little lost in the message and has a tendency to stray into didactic dialog, the film holds up and retains true power in its ending. Though I remembered the final gunfight, I had forgotten its power and felt haunted by these images as the screen went black for the credits.
Seen on Blu-Ray.
Gunfighters is a simple, entertaining Western. It has stand-out moments, such as the wagon chase and the long push in on the young man as he moves towards Randolph Scott carrying the dead body. These moments feel like they belong in another movie with Scott, one that might have been directed by Budd Boetticher for instance.
The film has other spots that are baffling. Though I see the narrative draw to playing off two look-alike sisters, this aspect of the story often had me asking, “What the hell is going on?” I couldn’t pin point how each woman felt about Scott or anything in general. Halfway through the film, when the younger sister suddenly says she’s in love with him, I was totally surprised (not in a good twist kind of way) and, even after finishing the film, still don’t know if she was sincere or not in this confession of love.
Perhaps it was just me and the perspective I had while watching this but the script didn’t make sense to this viewer at least half the runtime. Also, the humor often distracted from the bite of the picture. I think Randolph Scott movies played best without humor… again, going back to those masterpiece Westerns directed by Budd.
Seen on Amazon Prime.