I'm always interested in new westerns, films that belie the ongoing belief that the genre is dead, so I was intrigued by Sweet Vengeance, which offers a strong female lead role, and colourful performances from Ed Harris and Jason Issacs. Sadly, the film (originally released as Sweetwater, which may have played more on Harris' western past) is less than the sum of its parts.
Jones plays a newlywed wife on a dusty farm in New Mexico. She was, we learn, a whore, who has settled with a Mexican (played well by Eduardo Noriega) who lacks the edge of violence necessary for this frontier. Their land is surrounded by land owned by the self-proclaimed Prophet Josiah (Issacs), whom we watch, early in the movie, murdering trespassers on his land, and seems to control a good portion of the town as well. We learn he is a refugee from Utah, and we see him engaged in sex with his wife and, it seems, his daughter as well.
The build-up is classic, until Harris, as Sheriff Corneilius Jackson, enters the scene, trying to track down the two murdered trespasses, whose unlikely tale of being related to the governor turns out to be true. It's as if he's Virgil Cole reappearing after being out in the desert too long--but the suggestion of a saviour who's spent 40 days in the desert comes to mind, for reasons that I'll soon discuss. Meanwhile, Josiah and the bank are putting pressure on Miguel and Sarah for the land he covets, and that soon turns violent too.
This is, apart perhaps from the Mormon sex theme, pretty standard stuff, but this is not a Katharine Ross and Sam Elliott movie. The opening, which involves Issacs preaching in extreme closeup direct to the camera, sets a tone which the film finds hard to maintain, in part because it undercuts its own themes with attempts at offbeat humour that mostly fall flat. These involve Harris' dancing and Issacs' own slippage into a very modern kind of self-aware irony. The latter is particularly jarring since the film begins with its supporting characters hewing very closely to the kind of formal declamation that works so well in films like True Grit. But they, or the writers (Logan and Noah Miller, story by Andrew McKenzie; Logan also directed) can't keep it up. It's as if they're determined to make a Tarantino movie, but couldn't get Uma Thurman.
In fact its the relgious theme which is the strongest part of the movie, not least visually, as Josiah has erected a series of whitewashed crosses on the approach to his ranch, looking like a cleaner version of the road in Spartacus. There is a parallel to modern America, and the self-serving hypocrisy of the fundamentalist right, which might have been played on more strongly--just as the incest theme needed to be set out more clearly by identifying the women in Josiah's household beforehand. They also hint at the bigotry behind Josiah's religion, particularly important as Miguel is Mexican. There's something potentially powerful and contemprary lurking below the surface here. But as with Josiah himself constantly getting tired of keeping up the pretence, what we get on the surface is a temptation to fall back on hamming it up--something Harris does with more tongue in cheek than Issacs.
The other big problem is that Jones is simply not strong enough for them to play off. Her success in Mad Men was based on her conveying repression, and on the small screen she often appeared to be about to boil over. On the bigger screen, however, she's merely simmering, and when she delivers her lines, there's little of the power required to make them work. One or twice she seems so ananchronistic, it makes you wonder if the 1950s isn't really her default setting. On the other hand, there is at least one gratuitous nude scene. And there is another problem, which is the closeness, which doesn't become apparrent until the end of the film, of Sarah's previous employment, at her mother's whorehouse. This fills out the character of Miguel, because not only is he demeaned in the eyes of the townspeople because he's Mexican, but also because he married a whore. And as we see when he and Sarah are introduced, he can't shoot; but she can. Usually, you'd expect Sarah and Miguel to have moved on to begin her new life, but the revelation (in a great scene with Amy Madigan in a powerful cameo--Madigan is also married to Ed Harris) then is followed up when she seeks her revenge, starting with the local banker.
When Jones does begin to enact her vengeance, we get disappointed on a number of counts. Yes the local banker is a worthy victim (and played with great relish by Stephen Root) but death for a peeping Tom? He's peeking on a schoolgirl, so I suppose there's a modern analogy in there too. The final shootout ends in something of an anti-climax, although the Christian symbolism of Sarah's hiding among the lambs is a good one. And the ending is rather a cop out, as we have seen her dig her own grave, next to her husband's, but instead we see her burning her fancy dress, and standing naked again, before the fire of rebirth.
There are moments when this film charms, and a few where it seems to be working toward new approaches on old themes. In the end, though, it lacks the courage of its own convictions, much like Josiah himself, and settles for new gags and old tropes, and it's too much for January Jones to overcome on her own.
Sweet Vengeance (2013) aka Sweetwater, is out on DVD