A recent dearth of Hollywood Westerns has made it appear that the genre may be on its way out. Barring the Coen Brothers’ excellent 2010 retread of True Grit (which I’d classify more as a remake than a straight Western), very few directors have succeeded in created – or even attempted to create – genuinely good Westerns. So, it’s gratifying to see that there are some champions of the genre determined to keep the Western alive. Logan Miller is one such champion. With Sweetwater, he’s crafted a solidly entertaining Western that, in its nuttiness and simplicity, makes a strong case for the continued survival of the genre.
The film centers on a blood triangle between three peculiar characters: the insane Prophet Josiah (Jason Isaacs), who believes that God has given him permission to intimidate, rape and murder at will; daffy Sheriff Jackson (Ed Harris), who’s searching for two men who disappeared on Josiah’s property; and fierce former prostitute Sarah (January Jones), who picks up a gun and embarks on a bloody path of vengeance when Josiah murders her husband (Eduardo Noriega).
Sweetwater would be unbearable without fine actors, and the three main characters all do great work. Isaacs brings a delicious depravity and surprising depth to his antagonist, interpreting Josiah as a completely batty sadist who honestly believes he is carrying out the will of the Lord by dispatching those who oppose him. His unpredictability makes him a joy to watch on screen; sometimes, Josiah is dignified enough to pass for a legitimate man of the cloth, but when he flies off the handle, Isaacs turns Josiah into a rabid dog, filled with wild-eyed, acid-tongued fury.
Harris is equally strong, lending his gunslinger a ferocious, madcap energy. Consistently hilarious, compulsively watchable and always unpredictable, his Sheriff Jackson is an inspired creation. Watching him saunter through scenes and toss bracing one-liners in all directions is a straight-up pleasure. At times, the character seems almost too cartoonish, like the lone gun of Sergio Leone times aged past his prime and still doing his best to kick asss, but that’s likely Miller’s point.
Jones was the focal point of Sweetwater‘s marketing campaign, and while watching her mete out her brutal brand of justice in a purple dress and high heels is a lot of fun, she never feels like the real center of the film. Perhaps she isn’t charismatic enough to hold up against either Isaacs or Harris, and that’s why her sections of the movie feels a little more lethargic. However, the more likely culprit is the film’s script, which doesn’t give Jones much to do other than smolder and fire her weapon. She doesn’t get as many fun quips or triumphant moments as one might hope, and so the actress comes across as merely effectual instead of genuinely compelling. Jones has never demonstrated incredible range on the big screen, so she was likely the right pick for the role, but that doesn’t change the fact that her character is the weakest part of the film’s blood triangle.
One more important character in Sweetwater is the gorgeous New Mexico setting. Miller takes great care to capture as many images of magnificent mountain ranges and picturesque skies as possible, treating the land with appropriate reverence. To Sarah and her husband, the land holds the golden promise of a beautiful life and, moreover, an escape from the troubles of life inside the lines of civilization. Miller latches onto that and successfully posits the setting as a sun-scorched paradise, vibrant with opportunity. No matter how many scenes showcased the landscape, it took away my breath each and every time.
Sweetwater is a lot stranger than your typical Western, mostly because of Isaacs and Harris, but also because of its willingness to blend genres. Wrapped up inside the film are aspects of black comedy, rape-and-revenge cinema, comic-book-style characterization and unexpected symbolism. It’s not a perfect or even particularly congruent film by any stretch – the movie takes about twenty minutes too long to get going, and some dialogue is painfully stilted, especially with relation to interactions between Jones and Noriega – but when it comes alive, it packs one hell of a punch.
Don’t go into Sweetwater expecting an Oscar-caliber Western. This is not Unforgiven or True Grit; however, it also never strives for that level of excellence. I’ve never seen anything quite like Sweetwater. Miller clearly has incredible respect for the Western as a genre, but he also has a wicked sense of humor that he wants to add to it, and with Isaacs and Harris, he’s found two actors just as game as he is.
Sweetwater tweaks formula while tipping its hat to the classics. The result is an undeniably messy, frequently hilarious and remarkably enjoyable Western hybrid. You may not walk away wanting the film to win any awards, but it deserves some serious credit for carving out a funky little niche all its own.