Festival Daily

By Neil Karassik

With such a wide range of content at the Festival this year, it comes as somewhat of a surprise that there are three films playing in different programmes that all happen to be westerns. And all three are in many ways throwbacks to some of the major cycles within the genre. From Galas to Special Presentations and even to the after-hours Midnight Madness programme, there seems to be an underlying frontier theme at this year’s Festival. So grab your cowboy hat and come along for the ride.

The first film is a major Hollywood adaptation of a novel by crime and suspense writer Robert B. Parker. Directed, co-produced, co-written and co-starring Ed Harris (making his second directorial turn eight years after his acclaimed biopic feature Pollock), Appaloosa is a distinctly old-fashioned, slow-burning yet lean take on the genre. Reminiscent of the works of such classic filmmakers as John Ford, Howard Hawks and Anthony Mann, it also evokes more contemporary pictures from directors like Kevin Costner and Clint Eastwood, filmmakers whose recent westerns have proven successful at the box office.

The film follows Virgil Cole (Harris) and Everett Hitch (Viggo Mortensen), two old friends and partners in law enforcement in late 19th-century New Mexico. Following the brutal slaying of a small town’s law officers at the hands of a corrupt land baron (Jeremy Irons) and his team of rogue hired hands, Virgil and Everett are recruited as the new sheriff and deputy. Granted complete autonomy to do whatever they see fit in order to restore peace in the defenseless town, the pair go head to head with the rancher and his vicious posse. Add to this a shady damsel (Renée Zellweger), and you’ve got yourself a classically iconic take on the genre. 

Avoiding a revisionist approach, Appaloosa is much more in the vein of Delmer Daves’s 3:10 to Yuma than its 2007 reimagining. Unlike many of the post-Peckinpah/Leone westerns, Harris’s film uses sparse and incredibly quick violence, in a manner not unlike an old-school samurai film.

The majority of the film’s drama comes from the camaraderie between two men (Virgil and Everett) who have ridden together for a long time and enjoy a profound dynamic that is often unspoken or buried underneath layers of comedic complexity.

“The relationship between these two guys was kind of delicious to me,” Harris said at the film’s press conference in Toronto earlier this week. Appaloosa’s comic edge, juxtaposed with briskly fatal gunfights and rich character intimacy, is what successfully sets it apart from the rest of the “wild bunch” revisionist westerns.

Another film that looks back to an earlier yet more kinetic cycle of the genre is Kim Jee-woon’s dizzyingly high-concept and utterly breathtaking Korean film The Good, the Bad, the Weird. Part spaghetti western, Asian action film, adventure serial, absurd comedy and postmodern Tarantino fare, Jee-woon’s film, appropriately branded as a “kimchi western,” recalls Sergio Leone’s seminal The Good, the Bad and the Ugly and the popular Manchurian westerns of the 1960s and ’70s. And it takes this reworking to refreshingly innovative and incredibly entertaining new heights. Not a penny of the film’s $17 million budget (the largest ever for a Korean film) is squandered.   

Set in a lawless Manchurian desert during the 1930s, the film concerns three uniquely eccentric gunslingers – the “good” bounty hunter, the “bad” gang leader and the “weird” train robber – and the Japanese army, who all face off to procure an enigmatic map and locate a potentially gargantuan treasure.

The Good, the Bad, the Weird contains a “great train robbery” (film historians, note the quotations), a brutally hot and treacherous desert setting, an epic horseback action scene (albeit with jeeps and scooters), and even a couple of quick-draw gunfights. But the way Jee-woon stages these sequences is something completely unlike that of any traditional western, and this is what differentiates the film from any previous entries in the genre. Equally so, the film’s characters (played by three of Korea’s leading male actors: Jung Woo-sung, Song Kang-ho and Lee Byung-hun) transcend the conventions of the genre, creating characterizations that journey above and beyond the notion of pastiche.

Playing in the Midnight Madness programme, JT Petty’s The Burrowers is another unique take on a classical mode of the genre. Imagine, if you will, John Ford’s The Searchers and the Tremors franchise merged as a frontier western creature-feature.

Set in 1879, the film begins like many a traditional western. In the plains of the Dakota Territories, a young Irishman and a group of ranchers and infantry men set out to rescue the man’s girlfriend and the rest of the victims of a vicious kidnapping by, presumably, a tribe of natives. But when the men discover peculiar holes dug in the ground, they soon realize that they are not the hunters but the hunted – and something far more sinister than natives is after them; something inhuman.

Shot by cinematographer Phil Parmet (no stranger to these territories, as shown by his accomplished visual style in Rob Zombie’s The Devil’s Rejects), The Burrowers evokes a distinctly western sensibility through the representation of the dusty, expansive badlands that are beautifully serene yet threateningly perilous.

Credit must be extended to director Petty, who shows a mature respect for genre. Remaining faithful to the western while avoiding the lowbrow stylistic and narrative downfalls of modern horror fare, he gives a frightfully classy spin on what is arguably the greatest manhunt film of the 20th century, and I’m certainly not referring to Tremors 2: Aftershocks.         

As Viggo Mortensen said during the press conference for Appaloosa, “The western was the biggest thing during the birth of moviemaking in North America... and it is sticking around.”     

Sept. 6, 9:00am, Scotiabank Theatre 2

Sept. 13, 2:30pm, Visa Screening Room (Elgin)