Friday, February 14, 2020

The Quick and the Dead

This past week was the 25th anniversary of the underrated Sam Raimi take on the Western, The Quick and the Dead, which I am old enough to say that I saw when it came out a quarter century ago. It did not do well at the box office; it was panned by the critics; but it is, as I say, an underrated film. So I rewatched it.

A female gunslinger (Sharon Stone), originally known only as The Lady although we later learn her name is Ellen, comes into the dusty border town of Redemption, which is ruled with a ruthless fist by the outlaw John Herod (Gene Hackman), who is hosting a single elimination quick-draw tournament. While the names for the tournament are being collected, Herod comes into the saloon, puts his name in, and threatens a preacher named Cort with hanging unless he enters the tournament. While Cort (Russell Crowe) is perched precariously on a chair, rope around his neck, as Herod shoots the legs of the chair, The Lady tries to enter the tournament. The whole saloon laughs (women can't shoot), and then, as the chair finally collapses under court, she shoots the rope until it breaks. So both The Lady and Cort are in the tournament, which Herod later turns into a match to the death.

It's often described as a spaghetti Western, but this is, I think, misleading. It certainly draws on spaghetti Western tropes, but it's as much a revision and subversion of the spaghetti Western as the spaghetti Western was of the original Western. One of the most notable ways in which it does this is by re-moralizing the tropes, to such an extent that it often borders on allegory. The Lady comes into town right before the Day of the Dead; the tyrant's name is Herod; the town only can live up to its name, Redemption, through a death and a resurrection; and, of course, the title is itself a Biblical phrase referring to the Last Judgment. The main characters, The Lady and Cort, are also primarily dealing with moral struggles. Herod is invincible because of his ruthless will and extraordinary skill; nobody can take him down without the desire, the force of will, and the skill. The Lady wants vengeance against Herod, so she has the desire to kill Herod, but has neither the force of will nor (despite her ability) the skill; Cort probably has the skill, but he is running away from his past, and thus has neither the desire nor the force of will. Only when these obstacles are overcome will Herod fall or law and order return to town.

Sharon Stone is excellent in this role (although she was apparently almost impossible to work with on set); it's scenery-chewing enough that it fits her usual work, but it also allows her occasional moments for subtler work than she is known for, particularly in her interactions with The Kid (Leonardo DiCaprio). She fits a Clint Eastwood role quite well -- her gravel and grit is not as convincing, but it works well with her character's struggles, and she has the steely gaze down. She is also much, much better looking in an Old West outfit than Clint Eastwood. Herod is also one of Gene Hackman's best scenery-chewing roles; it's impossible to imagine anyone else filling Herod out so well.

The camera-work is also excellent -- you can find here pretty much every kind of camera trick you'd ever get in a Western, plus a few from Raimi's horror background, so that the film is always visually interesting. The use of natural lighting is sometimes stunning, and contributes to giving the whole film a surreal feel.

And the surrealism, sometimes subtle, sometimes more obvious, is a big part of what makes the film work. There is a sense of timelessness to everything, as if it were in fact all leading up to Judgment Day.

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