SWEETWATER: Bad Man, Mad Man, and The Woman Scorned
Jan 6, 2014
One of the points I’ve often made in my long-standing defense and admiration of the Western as a film genre is that its structure is exceedingly flexible. For example, I’ve seen some classic ones that are very much a romance. There have been others that could be considered mysteries or thrillers. Even more of them are fairly straight out action films. As a genre, the uniquely American Western boasts a kind of shifting landscape that allows many of them to not only tell a good story but also invoke any other myriad of functions for the storyteller, be it to stir up a couple of yuks all the way down to commenting on the current state of affairs by using the past as metaphor. Granted, I’ve seen science fiction also serve in this capacity (the classic television program STAR TREK definitely springs to mind); but the Western – because of its structural plasticity – is perhaps one more easily embraced by wider audiences.
(NOTE: The following review will contain minor spoilers necessary solely for the discussion of plot and/or characters. If you’re the type of reader who prefers a review entirely spoiler-free, then I’d encourage you to skip down to the last three paragraphs for my final assessment. If, however, you’re accepting of a few modest hints at ‘things to come,’ then read on …)
Sarah Ramirez (played by the effortlessly attractive January Jones), a former prostitute, and her new husband, Miguel (Eduardo Noriega), are attempting to start a life together as farmers on property adjoining the area’s sadistic minister, Josiah (brilliantly evil from Jason Isaacs). However, once Miguel spurns Josiah’s attempts to seize his land, the young man is murdered, leaving Sarah to be brutalized and left alone. But as Shakespeare had warned us long ago about women, Sarah isn’t about to allow herself to be trivialized. Armed with little more than a Colt and a dazzling purple dress, she’s about to dispense justice, even if that means crossing paths with the unconventionally violent Sheriff Jackson (a winning Ed Harris) in the process.
SWEETWATER is a revenge film, the kind of which the motion picture industry and home video turned out in spades during the 1970’s and early 80’s. Essentially, it’s a drive-in movie throwback, the kind of which influenced the likes of Dario Argento, Russ Meyer, Roger Corman, and even Quentin Tarantino. Granted, it might have a few more artistic merits to it than that – there’s some bold use of characters, and there’s even some pretty dramatic use of symbolism and color littered throughout, not to mention the clever use of sheep as ‘livestock’ – but, at its core, it’s all about the pursuit of the vengeful justice by a soiled dove (Google it, kids) who’s been wronged one too many times.
Directed by Logan Miller (with a script he penned with Noah Miller from a story by Andrew McKenzie), SWEETWATER could arguably be a film worth greater study in the way these three characters – Jackson, Josiah, and Sarah – represent the scales of morality in the Old West. Jackson and Josiah (both names that begin with J) stand at opposite ends of a moral scale, Josiah choosing to hide his wrongs behind a craven affection for whatever God he worships while Jackson does the same behind a badge. Both men see the use of their narrative crutches as a means to an end, little more than thuggery franchised by their respective systems of belief. Josiah is ‘mad’ from Biblical pursuits, wanting to spread his seed, while Jackson is simply ‘mad,’ choosing to delight within, perhaps even hearing music in his head. Sarah, on the other hand, rests somewhere between these two poles – although beautiful, she’s soft-spoken and demure, choosing to dress and speak plainly. Once she’s wronged, she puts on her purple dress and (literally) gets to business.
Stylistically, Miller even drapes his characters in colors to reinforce their differences. Josiah is always dressed in black and white, while Jackson wears an almost dandified blue coat and plaid pants (probably the most historically accurate for the era) and Sarah wears an electric shade of purple. It’s easy to see these three characters as the narrative trinity they are: the J’s on both ends, with Sarah trapped somewhere in between their ungodly and unruly influences. It’s all brilliantly executed with a smart script, great performances, and vividly brought to life by all involved.
On the downside, there were some minor hiccups (some curious editing choices involving fades and crossfades) which distracted from the impact of it all … but those are small potatoes indeed when measured against an attractive combination of the Good dispensing punishment from the end of a Colt.
SWEETWATER (2013) is produced by Kickstart Productions, Mythic International Entertainment, and Raindance Entertainment. DVD distribution is being handled by Arc Entertainment. As for the technical specifications … wow! The film looks and sounds impressive; I’ll admit there was an instance wherein Jones’s dialogue sounded a bit muffled, but it didn’t impact my enjoyment of the presentation. As happens too often with these smaller releases, there really isn’t anything all that special about the special features: there’s a short (too short) making of film along with a music video and the trailer. I would’ve expected more given the vehicle’s obvious star power, but, alas, “the sun done set” too quickly on this little gem.
HIGHLY RECOMMENDED. What I enjoyed most about SWEETWATER – aside from the terrific thematic polarity of Harris’s and Isaacs’ characters met somewhere in the middle by Jones – is the fact that, despite it being a Western, there’s so, so, so very much to talk about after it. The nature of Goodness. The nature of Grace. The nature of Evil. Notions of God and the Devil and redemption and retribution. Once again, the film Gods have smiled down on the viewing audience and reminded us just how flexible the Western truly is – it can be anything, such as a romance, an action film, a commentary on the world-at-large, etc. – and I’m glad someone saw fit to see yet another good one added to the always growing library of choices. See it. It may not mean much to you, but I suspect you’ll still be thinking about it after the credits roll.
In the interests of fairness, I’m pleased to disclose that the fine folks at Arc Entertainment provided me an advance DVD copy of SWEETWATER by request for the expressed purposes of completing this review.