But for one unfortunately critical element, Logan and Noah Miller’s SWEETWATER (the brothers rewrote a script originally by Andrew McKenzie) is a highly enjoyable darkly comic western, as subsumed in stylized movie traditions (and their subversion) as a Tarantino movie, but without Tarantino’s post-modern stew of references.
Sweetwater is your basic frontier town, half-way to Santa Fe, with a DNA that’s part spaghetti western, part Deadwood. Although there’s a token sheriff, the town is run by psychotic self-styled “prophet” Josiah (Jason Isaacs), who has multiple wives and who murders and commits other awful crimes wantonly in the name of God. In the opening scene, Josiah kills two of the wrong people, a pair who are (somewhat unlikely) relations of the Governor. That prompts the very colorful Sheriff Jackson (Ed Harris) to come to town in his baby-blue coat and with his fondness for what wasn’t yet called interpretive dance, as special emissary of the Governor to solve the disappearances. The other central character is Sarah (January Jones), a former prostitute now married to farmer Miguel (Edward Noriega), who commits the twin sins of being Mexican and getting in the Prophet’s way.
Clearly, these people are on a collision course, but the Millers give their characters (and minor ones like a corrupt banker played by Stephen Root) room to breathe. Harris has himself a fine old time as the flamboyant lawman, and then in the movie’s second half, Sarah, who had previously been a standard flinty western heroine, becomes a character out of Sympathy for Lady Vengeance, and Jones seizes the chance to blow away her proper, repressed Betty Draper image.
The only problem is the Prophet Josiah–not because there’s anything wrong with Isaacs’ performance, but because the character of a homicidal, crazy, ranting preacher has become such a staple of both historical and modern thrillers (a recent example was the Michael Parks character in Kevin Smith’s Red State). We see everything Josiah does coming a mile away, and he’s simply not an original conception in the way the Sheriff and Sarah are.
Sweetwater is still tense and loquaciously humorous, in a style that will remind some of the Coens’ True Grit. The filmmaking is also Coen-like in its care and love for detail. The extremely spare and effective production design by Waldemar Kalinowski and cinematography by Brad Shield are both notable, and this is a movie where costume design (by Hala Bahmet) is a co-star in itself, with Harris’ outfit and a particular dress worn by Jones going a long way to establish both their characters.
If Sweetwater had been a little more inventive in its choice of villain, it could have been a minor classic. As it is, the movie is still an entertaining showcase for its spellbinding actors and the filmmakers behind them.
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