It’s a little strange out there…
Being a big fan of western films, I’m always hopeful any time a new one appears. After the brief renaissance of the late 1980s and early 1990s, western film output has been pretty well confined to a few isolated theatrical releases and a number of made-for-television (mainly TNT) features. A 2000 theatrical western that I don’t remember hearing anything about (perhaps because it had only a very brief appearance at the theatres) is Dwight Yoakam’s South of Heaven, West of Hell. I say “Dwight Yoakam’s” because the film seems to have been a very personal project of his. He directed it, starred in it, co-wrote the screenplay, and wrote the original music. Although he’s not credited as producer, he appears to have also been involved in arranging some financial aspects, at least at the eleventh hour when significant financial difficulties arose.
South of Heaven, West of Hell has now been made available on DVD by Trimark in a special edition.
The Henry family brought up Valentine Casey as a youngster, but led by patriarch Leland Henry and his son Taylor Henry, the family has turned to crime. Casey, who had left the Henrys when he saw where they were headed, traveled to Cuba to fight in the Spanish-American War. Now back in the U.S. in Arizona and working as a U.S. Marshal, he is powerless to stop the outlaw Henry Gang from going on a vicious rampage in his town, robbing the bank and leaving many dead or wounded. Some time later, Casey finds himself at a train station/hotel located near the Arizona/Mexico border. There, with his sidekick U.S. Christmas, he encounters several members of the Henry gang and also meets a young woman named Adalyne who has come to reclaim her daughter from her father who runs the hotel. Casey soon falls in love with Adalyne, but when Taylor Henry shows up and one of his gang members attacks Adalyne, Casey journeys after them to exact retribution.
This is in some ways a familiar sort of a western film. Many shots or scenes are clearly homages to westerns and western filmmakers of the past. Thus we have the towns-children playing together while the gang passes by (as in Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch), the idea of a marshal returning from the dead to exact retribution (as in several Clint Eastwood films, such as Pale Rider or High Plains Drifter), and bright exterior panorama shots taken from the doorway of darkened interiors (reminiscent of John Ford’s The Searchers). Even some of the lines of dialogue recall similar words spoken by players of the past such as Ben Johnson. All of this is done in an understated way that doesn’t shout out at the viewer, the result being that one appreciates the director’s nod to the pros that have gone before rather than viewing the film as a blatant rip-off. Yoakam wisely makes no effort to hide any of this and freely points out instances throughout his commentary.
In fact, if there’s one thing you can say about Yoakam, it’s that he clearly views South of Heaven, West of Hell as a labour of love. Aside from carrying out many of the major functions for the film, he does have a feel for portraying the west and there are many realistic-seeming touches during the film’s two-hour-plus running time. These extend from authentic-looking period costumes to sets that actually have a weathered nature to them (a problem with some other westerns made recently, such as last year’s update of High Noon) to dialogue that isn’t filled with anachronistic expressions. The attention to detail in some of the film’s situations is commendable if perhaps excessive in some instances (such as a hole in the ground that serves as a toilet for a prisoner being held in a shack).
As we get further away in time from the era in which the western was a film staple, actors who are experienced in western roles are becoming very scarce. Thus there are few familiar western faces in this film. Bo Hopkins (memorable from the opening bank heist in The Wild Bunch) does appear effectively as a paunchy blacksmith; Luke Askew (past roles in Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid and The Great Northfield Minnesota Raid) appears as Leland Henry ; and Matt Clark (many westerns in the 1970s) plays Burl Dunfries, who runs the train station/hotel. But the main roles are all played by actors with little or no experience in westerns. Dwight Yoakam’s not too bad as Valentine, and Bridget Fonda does fine as Adalyne, but Vince Vaughn as the main heavy Taylor Henry looks uncomfortable and Paul Reubens (yes, Pee-wee Herman) is ridiculously bad as Arvid Henry. Bud Cort may think he’s funny as a government official from the East who runs afoul of the Henrys, but he’s more pathetic in the role than anything else.
Trimark advertises its DVD release as a Special Edition, but despite several reasonable supplements, it’s hard to take such advertising entirely seriously when the company didn’t go to the trouble to provide an anamorphic transfer for its 2.35:1 widescreen presentation. Aside from that, the image is quite crisp and conveys a palette of subdued colours dominated by grays, browns and dusty yellows and oranges effectively. Shadow detail is variable for the many interior scenes. A Dolby Digital 5.1 sound track is provided. It conveys the film’s various components from dialogue to Yoakam’s subdued music score to the various action sequences clearly and reasonably effectively. There is little pronounced use of the surrounds. An isolated music track is included as are English, French, and Spanish subtitles.
Several generally good supplements are included. First is an audio commentary featuring Dwight Yoakam, editor Robert Feretti, producer Gray Frederickson, and second-unit director John Longenecker. The quality of this is somewhat variable. Sometimes the four provide some interesting insights into the rationale and set-up of various scenes. They are quite forthright in letting us know about scenes that are meant to be homages to other western filmmakers, or in pointing out instances where continuity errors occurred. More times than I would have liked, however, they just describe what’s going on in a scene rather than giving value added. Then we have five deleted scenes, each a couple of minutes long. These are interesting to see in the context of the finished picture, but it’s understandable why they were cut. They add little to one’s understanding of the film’s events or character motivations. We are also privy to three examples of behind-the-scenes footage, but they provide little insight on any of the scenes in question. The theatrical trailer plus trailers for two other Trimark releases round out the disc.
Unfortunately, for all his reasonable work as producer and star of the film, Yoakam lets himself down with a script that’s too long and occasionally incomprehensible, and direction that’s too indulgent at times. This film takes 133 minutes to tell a 90-minute story at best. Part of the extra time is due to unnecessarily long takes on some scenes. The rest comes from sub-plots and characters that add nothing to the basic story. For example, it’s nice to see Billy Bob Thornton playing a small role as Brigadier Smalls, a gentleman who escorts Adalyne briefly, but the part serves no useful function in furthering the story. The same is true of several sequences involving a hot air balloon whose custodian is one Shoshonee Bill played by Peter Fonda. Perhaps it was important to have such names to ensure financing, but when their roles serve little purpose in the story and actually diminish the effectiveness of the film, then what’s the point?
The other thing that’s quite noticeable about this film is excessive violence that serves no purpose. We’re used to excessive violence in films with more contemporary settings, but it feels out of place in westerns. Yes, the old west was a violent place and, yes, westerns of the past often sanitized such violence too much, but it’s not necessary to fill the film with assorted brutal shootings, or the unpleasant image of a man being nearly castrated and later sewn up. That sort of thing is easy to portray graphically. It takes some skill and respect for one’s audience to convey the idea without needing to be excessive or graphic about it. That skill and respect is lacking in South of Heaven, West of Hell.
Dwight Yoakam has made a valiant effort with this western, but the results are definitely a mixed bag. Counteracting his efforts at authenticity and realism and a reasonable job of playing the film’s lead are a bloated production and some unnecessarily graphic violence that will turn some viewers off. Trimark’s DVD release is also variable, for despite several good supplements and a competent transfer, it doesn’t bother with anamorphic enhancement.