Friday, February 10, 2017

Retro Trio: The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976); Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! (1989); Shotgun Stories (2007)

The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976)

Director: Clint Eastwood

Still one of the all-time great Westerns, even if its flaws show a bit more, these forty years later.

One of Clint Eastwood's earlier directorial efforts, Josey Wales tells the story of the title character, a Missouri farmer whose wife and child are brutally butchered by a vicious platoon of "Redlegs" - a gang of Union mercenaries - during the United States Civil War. Wales takes up his gun, joins a Confederate militia, and starts fighting the Union with a bloody vengeance. His pain over his loss is so great that, even when the war ends, he refuses to surrender his guns or himself. Instead, he goes on the run, feeling that he cannot let the burden of his anger go. Although the traumatized and jaded Wales tries his best not to make any connections with other people, he can't seem to help slowly building a retinue of followers, all of whom he saves from one threat or another. Try as he might to suppress it, some small shred of humanity and empathy keeps breaking through and inspiring an odd loyalty from a motley crew of the disaffected.

While there may be a few warts that pop up here and there, this is still a titan of a Western - one which I would place among the top 3 all time. This is one of those great films that incorporates nearly everything that audiences enjoy about a particular genre of film, while turning many of its conventions on their heads. In the case of Josey Wales, we get the makings of a grand revenge tale, and even a satisfying exacting of that revenge. However, the unexpected portion is how Wales's revenge upon the Redlegs becomes secondary to his accidental rediscovery of his own humanity and desire to live. The first act of the movie follows fairly conventional lines - Wales is so consumed with rage over his wife and child's murders that he refuses to surrender, even in the face of overwhelming odds of the Union army. It certainly seems easy to see where the tale will then go: Wales will outsmart and outgun his enemies until he gains satisfaction. Although he certianly does that, to an entertaining extent, it becomes secondary to the underlying struggle within him to find some reason to bother living. It was one of the few Westerns that touched on the true darkness and nihilism of pure vengeance, even when it may be righteous. This gives the story a much stiffer backbone than nearly all of its genre brethren.

Chief Dan George's performance as Watie is the standout
among several excellent supporting turns in this movie.
Wales's unique character is cast into greater light in the
presence of such centered companions.
But the film offers much more than cool gunfights and an existential struggle. The largest part of Wales's recovery of his soul is the oddball entourage which assembles around him. As he flees past Union forces towards Texas, he first encounters Lone Watie, an elderly Cherokee who seems to have given up most of his hope in life. Still, he maintains a bone dry sense of humor. When Wales doesn't kill him out of hand, Watie senses something honorable about the stoic gunman and decides to join him. Though Wales seems mildly annoyed by the native's company, he doesn't discourage it. Played brilliantly by Chief Dan George, Watie provides an amazing levity and heart to the film, while transcending and avoiding so many of the misrepresentations that Hollywood films constructed of Native Americans over the previous many decades. His lines, thanks in no small way to George's delivery, are just as funny and powerful now as they were 40 years ago.

And Watie is just the first of several characters through whom we sense the change in Wales. By the time he reaches Texas, Watie and George have also picked up a young Navajo woman, a cranky and tough old woman from Kansas, and her misty-eyed daughter. Though it is never stated in so many words, it is through this motley group that Wales finds a reason to live. And just when we are led to believe that we will witness a classic "cowboy versus Indian" showdown between Wales and the infamous war chief Ten Bears, the movie flips the script again and gives us an intense meeting which results in a truce between the two fierce warriors. Of course, we do get a larger-scale gunfight towards the end, but it is between Wales's new family and the vicious Redlegs who come after him. This provides a nice sense of classic revenge satisfaction, while righting some of the wrongs of so many past Westerns. Having a more diverse collection of  white people banded with a couple of Natives and fighting off an entire group of violent whites said something that no Western had completely tried to say before about cooperation and redemption.

As with nearly any movie, I can nitpick here and there, especially with movies that are four decades old. But I would rather limit this review to the many great things about this one. I think that, all told, Clint Eastwood has been major parts in all of the handful of transformative modern Westerns. Between playing Sergio Leone's "Man With No Name" in the mid-'60s, to directing and starring in The Outlaw Josie Wales in 1976, and finally doing the same with Unforgiven, I have a difficult time imagining just how anyone could ever again be at the heart of revolutionizing such a prominent genre of film.

Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! (1989)

Original Spanish Title: Atame! 

Director: Pedro Almodovar

This seems to be the film where Almodovar started to tell stories that wandered a bit further into uncomfortable territory, while still maintaining a generally humorous tone.

The movie centers on Spanish movie actress Marina, a former porn actress who now stars in campy but more mainstream horror movies. Unbeknownst to Marina, a former one-night-stand of hers - Ricky (Antonio Banderas) - has just been released from a psychiatric hospital where he has been receiving therapy for stalking. Ricky is still obsessed with Marina, and he immediately kidnaps her in her own apartment, ties her up, and tries to convince her of his love and desire for them to be married and have a family. She is initially horrified by his bizarre obsession, but eventually comes to love his dedication.

This was the fifth Almodovar movie I've seen, but the only earlier one I'd seen was Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown. While that earlier movie was almost pure comedy, with a slight dash of darkness, Tie Me Up! seems to offer the most obvious clues as to the very uncomfortable places that many of Almodovar's movie would eventually go. While it is not nearly as challenging as Talk to Her, this one looks at obsession and desire in ways that viewers are likely to struggle with. Though many of the odd interactions between Ricky and the captive Marina can be humorous, there is a disturbing quality in how Marina eventually comes to love her captor. This, despite his physical and sometimes psychological abuse of her while he keeps her as his prisoner. One could argue that Ricky's dedication is some twisted form of true love, but it seems that an equally strong argument can be made for it being thoroughly selfish as well. Yet another notion is that both people are possessed of skewed and warped perceptions of what constitutes healthy relationships, and so are actually well-suited for each other. Such is the nature of Almodovar's movies: while they may follow familiar narrative frameworks, the characters operating within them are far from traditional ones. This is what makes them so unique and fascinating, if not exactly easy to watch at all times.

As with other Almodovar movies I've seen, it is impossible to guess exactly where the story will lead. Given how many films stick with conventional themes and storylines, it is amazing that one director and writer can continue to make compelling, challenging, and in many ways beautiful movies that stand apart from all others. This one is probably not the best "starter" movie for someone who hasn't seen any of Almodovar's movies before, but it will certainly please fans of his other movies.

Shotgun Stories (2007)

Director: Jeff Nichols

An amazing directorial debut that proves that strong drama is not only to be found in big budget movies set in large cities.

Shotgun Stories tells the tale of a small but nasty feud that breaks out between two sets of half-brothers in modern day Arkansas. One group, comprised of the three brothers Son (Michael Shannon), Boy, and Kid, are the trio abandoned by their abusive father so that he could start a new life and family. This father also changed his ways enough to become a decent parent to his two new sons - Cleaman and Mark - by his second wife. When their father dies, Son leads his younger brothers to the funeral, where he berates the dead man right in front of his second family. This sparks a feud between the sons that escalates in dangerous speed and intensity.

The movie is an expert blend of captivating character study, environment, and the theme of parents' sins living on in their children. The eldest brother Son is a stoic man who may not always have the best judgement, but who has a sense of guardianship over his brothers. None of the three is particularly successful at anything. In fact, they live in near-poverty, but they do all have an earnest desire to help and support each other. From Son's perspective, this means not allowing their abusive father to be buried before he voices his view that the man abandoned them and scarred them irrevocably. When this leads to serious conflict, Son and especially his youngest brother Kid are willing to fight for each other in every way possible. None of this ancient tribalism feels the least bit contrived, to the point that it is nestled right into the rural Arkansas landscapes and neighborhoods where the story takes place.

There is a very authentic quiet to many of the scenes that can vascillate between serene and terrible. This is a quality which I've found in other well done dramas done in the rural South, such as Badlands and others. It also helps punctuate the drama and emotion that breaks out when tensions run high and violence erupts. Several of these scenes, such as a fistfight at a carwash, would likely seem small-scale if it took place within a big budget film in a large city. In Shotgun Stories, though, it bears every inch of tension of a classic gunfight, but with the added layer of genuine emotion that is rarely found in mythical standoffs of the Wild West.

The dramatic turns in the movie feel completely organic, and the resolution is one that may surprise. To this point, now several weeks after I watched the movie, I am still mulling over just what the ending suggests. It is that atypical and thought-provoking. I highly recommend this one to those who enjoy small-scale, well-crafted drama.