Right out of the gate let me just say that you can put Robert Duvall in a cowboy hat and situate him anywhere on a wide open plain under a big sky and I’ll watch him do just about the most mundane of anythings. Lonesome Dove is just about some of the most awesomest television ever made and I’m terribly ashamed to admit I’ve never seen his Oscar-winning turn in Tender Mercies (I know, I know… I’ll remedy that soon).
So when I read last weekend all these glowing reviews that he was starring as an ornery old cowpoke in the two-part Broken Trail on AMC beginning Sunday I skedaddled over to the TiVo and programmed her on in there youbethca â€” hell I would’ve done so even if the reviews had been bad. Duvall in a western illicits something of a Pavlovian response. I even allowed it precedence over Deadwood, which I have most definitely become enamored with this season.
Well, I watched the first 105 minutes with limited commercial interruption and I have to amend my above statement about my willingness to watch Duvall watch paint dry as long as he’s sitting in a saddle somewhere in the latter half of the 19th century. I’ll sit in love with Duvall in a cowboy hat doing just about anything other than starring in a crap western where whoever wrote and produced the thing obviously missed the crucial ass/elbow life lesson because they clearly cannot differentiate betwixt the two and certainly demonstrate a failure a tell a tale that isn’t as by-the-numbers remedial as it gets.
Cases in point:
In the opening after the rather graphic exhibition of how bulls are turned into steers and then burned with brands â€” not a bad start â€” we have Duvall (Print) riding up out of nowhere to confront his nephew played by Thomas Haden-Church (Tom) to tell him he’s sorry but his momma died and he’s even sorrier to report that she done deeded him everything but this letter that essentially tells her only boy he can go fuck himself. Again, all’s good so far.
But Print’s got a plan, see. He tells Tom that he’s gonna put the momma’s property up as collateral for a loan so he can buy a heckload of horseflesh to drive on up to Wyoming to sell to some representative of her majesty the queen of England who’s advertising for them, and he urges the boy to come with him for a 25-percent cut.
Of course Tom does, but this is where the first red flag comes up, albeit a minor one. It would’ve been nice if the nephew had done a liiiiittle bit more than just basically thought about his uncle’s proposition for 1.9 seconds before saying m’kay and upending his life. Would it have killed the storytellers to stretch out the nephew’s disgruntlement and doubt so that maybe a scene could’ve been worked in where he has to come to his stubborn old uncle’s aid â€” maybe a fight or something â€” and thereafter decides he can’t live with himself if he let’s this old dude just go off and get himself killed?
Guess so, because next thing we see is they’ve got the bazillion horses and just the two of themselves are gonna transport them all the hell up to Wyoming. Just the two of them. With a bazillion horses. Riiiiiggggght.
Next we’re shown the bad guy played by James Russo somewhere buying five Chinese slave girls that he’s gonna sell to a madam somewhere. So there’s your set up. You got Duvall and Haden-Church moving horses across the prairie and Russo doing the same with some future whores. Think they’ll meet? Of course they will, but not before Tom has to tangent into a town for supplies, which is just a weak-ass excuse for the writers to put Tom in a bar where he kicks the ass of a bartender who â€” shock! â€” objects to some guy playing a fiddle and panhandling in his establishment.
Let me get this straight. The best the writers could give me is a bartender who has the audacity to not want a freeloader bothering his customers? And wait… you want me to like Tom for opening a can of whoop-ass on this poor sap?
To make it even more implausible, Tom shows up back at camp with the supplies and the fiddle player with some lame excuse about how they need the help, which Print readily says m’kay to. Well hell, why didn’t they get a hand before setting out? And why hire a guy whose shown he knows his way around a violin and panhandling but not herding horses? Can’t you at least give me a scene where fiddler shows he knows his way around a lasso?
Nah, because it’s crap writing people â€” and there’s pa-lenty more.
Despite it being the wild wide open West, it isn’t long before Russo’s evil captain and his fivesome of winsome Chinese lasses end up on the same very trail going in the same very direction as Print,Tom and Itzhak Perlman. Coincidence? Lemme guess the guys who wrote Crash wrote this, didn’t they?
What follows is some serious grade school-level scribing. At the releuctant invite of Print the captain is invited to join them for dinner. In response he brings a bottle of whiskey â€” that he’s drugged, of course… but why we don’t know specifically. Then over the meal by the campfire and while Print and Tom and Fiddleboy drink up and the five young ladies cower in the background, the captain explains where the girls are headed what they’re to become and offers them pokes at a buck a piece. All decline. Next morning? Oh yeah, our trio wakes up groggy and way late from the drugging to find four of the five ladies still there and still terrified, but the captain and the bazillion horses and all their money are long gone. Poof!
What the hell?
So of course Tom has to set out solo for the pimpthief and when he finds the bastard pronto with the one girl and all the horses â€” this is my favorite part â€” does he shoot the bastard? Nah, he sneaks up on him with a rifle while he’s sleeping, wakes him up so that he can hang him. Hang him? One moment the captain’s waking up with he biz end of a Winchester repeater pressed against his cheek and the next Tom’s riding off with the gal and the horses while the captain swings from a tree.
So pop quiz hotshot: Assuming you’re writing a scene about basically a descent nonsadistic cowboy who’s got a schedule to keep and a cantankerous uncle back wherever waiting with the fiddler and the four other whining hookers-to-be, would you…
A) Have him just blow the thieving bastard’s head off and get on ’bout his business?
B) Have him take all that extra time to tie the captain up and then make a hangman’s noose and then find a tree strong enough to support the baddie’s weight and then struggle to get that guy who I think would be rather unwilling to get up onto his horse and be hung and finally enjoy watching the guy slowly choke to death if his neck didn’t break right off. But then don’t show any of that stuff.
And pardon me, but how exactly does one guy get a bazillion horses and a scared girl back to Uncle Print? Oh well, if the captain could get ’em away, it shouldn’t be too hard, right?
Back to the quiz. The answer’s C, which is better yet howsabout you rewind and give up that whole drug-the-booze bullshit and create a more plausible conflict in the first place and one that isn’t resolved right away. Maybe the captain kills the fiddler and has to bail on the gals and then later on takes Tom hostage to get the girls back and then Print kills him. Something. Anything!
But by then, hope is gone and I’m at the point where I’m talking to the TV as the plot continues downhill from there and all the iconic images of Duvall in his hat don’t mean shit. One of the horses breaks its leg and Tom’s gotta put it down much to the shock of the girls. Print takes a liking to all the five gals, teaching them to ride and such. One dies from tick fever. We’re introduced to the madam whose bordello is in a lawless town and who’s upset that the captain hasn’t arrived with her new merchandise. Greta Scacchi shows up in a supporting role somewhere. Then back on the plain there’s a flat-out odd confrontation where Print up and shoots two travelers dead in the belief that one is a fellow named Smallpox Bob who tours around purposely infecting the natives. Then they burn the bodies and the horses.
By far the most inane cheaply written twist comes at the end. All of sudden kind-hearted grandfatherly Print just doesn’t want to have a cotton-pickin’ thing to do with them orientals no more and basically ordains that Tom and the fiddler (who by the way has not once played the instrument since the bar scene way back) take them to town and it just so happens the very town they begrudingly go to just coincidentally happens to be where the perturbed madam is. Of course she finds out and the first part ends with Tom blowing the thumbs off a would-be rapist (guess there wasn’t time to hang the creep up by them) and they make their escape (with Greta for some unknown reason) past the cursing rock-throwing madam who vows vengeance as strongly as Tom and fiddleboy vow not to desert those girls.
Good grief. It’s enough to put me off my feed. And needless to say I will not be returning for the conclusion.