Wednesday, 16 February 2011


There's one great line - just one, so make it last - in the nasty, cheap low budget western The Man Who Came Back, released in 2008.Reese Paxton, Civil War veteran and gentle family man, has escaped from prison to seek revenge on the men who framed him and sent him there, the same men who later murdered his wife and son. He enters a saloon/brothel late at night and helps himself to some whiskey. The madam discovers him and asks who will pay for the drink. Reese, now cold-blooded and determined, replies, simply, "Everybody pays."

It's a nice moment, setting up the film's second half, in which Reese sets out to take down the whole damn dirty town. But it doesn't work, because it's in the wrong spot; the scene, which exists to set up the impending revenge, comes after Reese has started that revenge, not before. By this point, we've already had a fire and a murder, both Reese's doing. The coming storm has already arrived, and there's no point now of leading up to it. The scene fails.

The Man Who Came Back is riddled with moments like this, some pieces that must've sounded clever on paper, but fall apart in execution. Other parts work on their own but can't connect - or flat-out just don't fit - with the rest of the movie.

Most glaring is the representation of the Thibodeaux Massacre of 1887, a mass slaughter of striking plantation workers; it earns its own title card at the end, asking us to mull over a dark day in history, even though the movie's not about the massacre, barely shows the massacre, and is only tangentially related to the massacre. But writers Glen Pitre (who also directs) and Chuck Walker seem dead set on including a tribute to those who were killed in the incident, never mind dramatic logic. And actually, for all the talk of the massacre and its victims, the movie doesn't have much use for black characters, and rarely knows what to do with them. The former slaves of this film spend too much time either fawning over our hero or being brutalized by the villains. The film shows little interest in their side of the story, but then, it also shows little interest in the actual facts of the massacre, figuring "striking blacks" and "lots of gunfire" equates an accurate portrayal of history. How can a movie spend so much time touting itself as a tribute to history, but get that history so wrong?

On the swampy surface of things, this would have seemed a perfect project for Pitre, a Cajun filmmaker with an edgy filmography, who's worked with Tavernier on Confederate Ghosts, and he would seem the perfect choice to direct it. In movies there is always a lot of change between concept and finished product, and in this case my suspicion is a lot of changes and compromises were made. The result is like a Larry Cohen movie trying to be something 'better' but having no idea how to do that.

At times, it seems as if they just are not bothering. Billy Zane is cast as the meek new sheriff in town. The film is packed with guest stars out of place - George Kennedy, Carol Alt, Sean Young, Armand Assante - but none are more miscast than Zane, who turns his role into comic relief. Fine, except Zane achieves this comic relief not by bringing out the cowardice of his character, but by stubbornly repeating his trademark laid-back, smart-ass style, all blasé mannerisms and bemused asides. He's too casual, too smarmy for this movie, and no one seems to care it's out of touch with the tone of the story.

And on it goes. Convinced that the film deserves a graphic love scene between Reese and the madam, and unhindered by the fact that the two characters do not share a romantic relationship, we are shown a daydream fantasy, like a softcore porno, in which the madam imagines herself writhing atop the hero in sexual bliss. It's such a bizarre cutaway that even those who will rent the film for all its R-rated blood and breasts will roll their eyes.

It's a brutal movie, ugliness abounds here, but the filmmakers never quite know how to translate such bitter energy into engaging storytelling. The movie sits in an uncomfortable neutral zone between wanting to have the feel of a 1970s exploitation film and feeling guilty about it not being more somber, in which cheap violence and sex were less glorified. At times, you can feel the filmmakers pushing for a frank portrayal of what's lost within a man when he is consumed by revenge and a thirst for nasty violence. At other times, you can falmost hear them saying, 'Hey, we can show boobies.' Usually, the boobies win out.

In mid-movie, a villager, regretting his part in wrongfully convicting Reese, is murdered by his co-conspirator, while in the next room, the man's money-grubbing wife (Young, as ever, typecast) prostitutes herself to a hired thug. Here, perhaps more than anywhere else in the film, the pretense of earnest conflict disintegrates into gross exploitation. Is the cross-cutting between the almost sexual murder and the violent intercourse a dark punchline meant to illustrate some clever parallel, or is it just there for tasteless thrills? Does her grubbing for coins in the mud make a further point? I'm not sure the movie even knows.
And there's something else off at the very core of the film. Eric Braeden, the twenty year veteran of an American soap opera The Young and the Restless, stars as Reese. On the surface, this is fine casting; Braeden's craggy face suggests a man who's lived through too much, while his soft, restrained voice suggests a hero of few words, boiling with rage on the inside, cool on the surface. But Reese Paxton is a role requiring great physicality, and the sixty-something soap star cannot oblige. Choppy editing is employed to hide Braeden's stiff moves in every fight scene, but we're not fooled. His performance is filled with awkward poses passing as physical struggles. Both Braeden and his production company Gudegast (his original family name) Braeden are credited as executive producers, and perhaps the aim of the project is to simply create the situations for him to be highlighted.

In the end the film seems clumsy, with a bland badly-paced TV movie feel, and a talented cast turned into characters who stumble their way through the plot, turning exploitation into melodrama. The Man Who Came Back is a mess, bloated and brutal in all the wrong places.

No comments :