Wild Bill

(Check out my previous Western film review here: Rancho Deluxe)

The 1995 Wild Bill Hickok Western, Wild Bill, is something of an all-star production. The film was directed by Walter Hill, a great action screenwriter turned director who began his career penning films like Sam Peckinpah’s The Getaway before directing a series of classic films in the late 70s and throughout the 1980s that includes The Driver, The Warriors, The Lost Riders, Streets of Fire, and Crossroads. His was a muscular sort of directing in the great tradition of American film auteurs like Howard Hawks and John Huston. And like those two men, he created a ton of films in a short time, very few of which are great, but occasionally one or two amongst the horde would appear that justify the sleight of haphazardly-directed works. Wild Bill, I am sorry to say, is a film beyond his Walter Hill’s prime years as a director, and as a result, the picture is pretty awful.

The rambling, stylistically and narratively confused film has a long lineage of narrative from which to draw from, and which makes it that much more confusing why it turned out as badly as it did. To begin, there is the legend of the Western outlaw occasionally turned lawman Bill Hickok whose life story can, and often has, filled volumes. Hill chose here to cover much of this story in brief vignettes and tell only the tale of his ignoble, rather mundane last days and death throughout the meat of the film.

Hill did not just pull the story out of legend and history books before directing it either, which might have justified the film’s incomplete nature and meandering tone. No, the story of Bill Hickok that this film ultimately derives from is that of Fathers and Sons, a play written by Thomas Babe that is typically been well reviewed. Next, the acclaimed author of Paris Trout, Pete Dexter, shaped that play into a novel of his own called Deadwood.

Despite the esteemed literary tradition backing the film, and the fact that Western mythos often makes for a good film, Hill decided make of the film something akin to the recent Oliver Stone indie success Natural Born Killers. As such, Wild Bill alternates between black and white, color, and matte photography styles. It often employs dutch angles and other arthouse framings. But it does none of this particularly well, and worse, it does most of it in a slow, methodical manner, which prevents the film from taking on the kaleidoscopic quality of Stone’s work. And when Hill does cut from one style to another, it’s done in such a way that the picture becomes disjointed and leaves the viewer feeling jarred by it. As if Hill were completely unable to choose a rhythm and to stick to it. And believe me, there is no meta-rhythm going on here, Hill is no Godard.

Although Jeff Bridges plays the role of Wild Bill Hickok well, and is a generally decent actor in everything he does, no amount of acting could save his role from the confusions of the narrative. He moves from place to place, causing trouble and killing folk in the film’s prologue before settling into Deadwood for reasons that never become totally apparent (John Hurt, the film’s narrator, explains that there was a gold rush going on in that town. However, Hickok does no prospecting and doesn’t even take on a job as a sheriff on account of the onset of glaucoma slowing blinding him). He has dream sequences in which he is hunted by Native Americans, presumably because he killed a chief at the beginning of the film who has a dream that he must fight Hickok to save his people (or some such odd metaphysically suspect scenario). And aside from the color photography of scenes in Deadwood, there are often flashback sequences with varying looks and cinematic approaches, which ought to help differentiate time displacement in the story, but really only add to a conceptual confusion in the film’s color palette and artistic style. Consequently, it is over-saturated in colors and styles and seemingly has no overarching style or look, and feels ‘searching’ in an inept manner representative of a lack of direction and not the ‘searching’ quality of a Tarkovsky film, or even of Natural Born Killers (A film I don’t enjoy, but respect as a work of art).

Within the film is the story of one of Hickok’s past loves named Susannah Moore (Diane Lane) who he loved and left. He apparently sired a son who grew into one Jack McCall (played miserably by David Arquette) (Why the last name? Beats me?) who blames Hickok for his insecurities or some such thing and ends up tracking the old man down to kill him, if he can. But the young gun has no practice with a gun and is beaten by Hickok at every turn. He hires a gang of gunfighters to help incapacitate his father and hold him in a saloon, and then pontificates about how his feelings were hurt by him not being around and not sticking around with his mother who was a self-respecting prostitute, supposedly. Instead of killing Hickok, he roams about talking about his feelings (is this not the Wild West?) before NOT offing the old man, managing to let him escape, kill his entire group of gunfighters for hire, and then finally getting up the nerve, inexplicably, to kill the old guy. McCall does’t even run away and become a self-respecting outlaw, he just turns himself in and is hung by the neck until dead for killing his own father in cold blood.

Rounded out by lackluster performances by Bruce Dern, Keith Carradine, and Christina Applegate (all actors I actually like), the film is miserable drivel. And as one of two films in a combo pack including the aforementioned Rancho Deluxe, I might have to deem this the single worst Western film collection release ever sold on the market (at least to my knowledge). Jesus! Kill me now!

 

Cody Ward

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