Other than a musical performance of The Blue Danube by some townfolks at one point, there is little sugar in the western town they call Sweetwater. There is, however, unfettered corruption in all positions of authority. The bank, bears the ironic moniker of Hugh’s Integrity and Trust, but Hugh (the always excellent Stephen Root) takes great delight in the act of all but robbing his customers. The current sheriff is a lazy and incompetent blowhard and the local brothel madame (Amy Madigan)sold her own daughter into the prostitute trade without a second thought about it. The general store’s proprietor has a Porky’s style peephole for watching the few ladies in town strip down to their underwear when trying on the fancy dresses he retails. All are under the iron fist of Josiah, the preacher and literal shepherd who runs the biggest Ranch in the valley, called Holy Land (a western counterpart to Django Unchained’s Candi Land.) Josiah is tightly wound, spiritually crazy and exudes 24 karat hypocrisy through every pore of his alabaster skin. Jason Isaacs, here plays one of those great mustache twirling madmen who at one point crucifies someone on an upside down cross. Sweetwater is that kind of movie.
Saddling up a near A-list cast of character actors heaping on gobs of production-value, in the parlance of our times, Sweetwater is a western trashterpiece. The film might be an acquired taste, but for those who might detect its tannins and notes of ironic humour and wordplay in the story, there are many, many delights. In rapid succession we are introduced to a bearded Mormon-Prophet Josiah and his particular brand of apocalyptic preaching, the playfully competent prancing hired lawman, Jackson (Ed Harris – whose manner and wardrobe seem to be channeling Doctor Who), and the straight-backed frontierswoman, Sarah (January Jones) frolicking with her Mexican husband, Miguel (Eduardo Noriega) on their dusty ranch property in the dusky evening. We will watch all of these actors chew scenery in their own fashion over the course of the next 100 minutes. They will make elaborate speeches, offer flinty glares, and dwell a bit in their idiosyncrasies before the obligatory climax in which everyone will shoot at each other. But O Brother! What scenery will be chewed before we get there.
The Miller Brothers direct Andrew Mackenzie’s script like an over-the-top hybrid of Tarantino and Coen Brothers, replete with a penchant for flowery patois and mano a mano (or mano a womano) scenes of egos clashing. Sweetwater is not a Spaghetti Western, albeit it often sports the subgenres comic book sensibility; it is not a classic Ford-ian Western with gallant gunslingers and ladies (one might be wise to consider it the antithesis of My Darling Clementine) but it has sun drenched landscapes worthy of Monument Valley. It clearly references the town at the centre of Sergio Leone’s Once Upon A Time in the West, but does not air the arty pretensions of a Arthouse or Revisionist Western even as ladles out a healthy dollop of menstrual blood and feminist determination. Maybe strike that last bit, as Sweetwater is far from being too serious in how it goes about itself, exploitation and image are king. Any gravitas is a false front, pretty posturing, as the movie is far more interested in peaking around the irony and delicious social stand-offs between characters. This give and take of what it is and what it isn’t keeps audiences on their toes – or may send them, confused, running for the exit doors.
January Jones cuts a fine flinty widow’s figure when she dons her lavender party-dress and starts packing heat. But before that, a scene involving a couple thugs, and her naked in a river was original and effective as well. One that I’ve not seen in a western before and demonstrates her avenging angel is fully in control of her sexual power and righteous rage. Less about Jones‘ acting chops and more about her silhouette. This may bother the politically correct set, but rest assured, it does the work.
The film, however, clearly belongs to Ed Harris, his Sheriff Jackson’s flowing white locks and fancy pants give him a bit of a clownish look and he has a goofy comic timing to underscore this. But his cool confidence and a total lack of willingness to put up with people putting on airs, as they say, makes him such a memorable rogue. Multiple scenes of Jackson fucking with Josiah in the preacher’s own home, at his treasured mahogany dining table (imported from the Caribbean!) make it darn near impossible not to love the wacky affair. Josiah’s pompous bullying of his wives and other guests of Holy Land with the charade masquerading as social sophistication is shamed purely for the delight of the audience. At one point, Jackson not only seats a couple of corpses (murdered at Josiah’s hand) down at the table, he even pours them each a wine. The bloody violent western as a delightful social farce.
Which brings us back to my initial food metaphor. This may not be the most sophisticated cinematic meal you’ve ever sat down to, but so very confidently made with a blend of tone and spice to make it a memorable experience that will have you quoting the choice lines of dialogue.