Rated R. Running time: 1 hour 24 min.
Our content ratings (1-10): Violence 7; Language 4; Sex/Nudity 1.
Our star rating (1-5): 4.5
Warning: the last paragraph might contain spoilers.
Therefore pride is their necklace; violence covers them like a garment.
I will say of the Lord, He is my refuge and my fortress: my God; in him will I trust. Surely he shall deliver thee from the snare of the fowler, and from the noisome pestilence.
Psalm 91:2-3 KJV
Writer/director John Maclean’s take on the Old West is very anti-romantic, about as far from John Ford’s Old West as one can get. Set in 1870 on the trail to Colorado, this West is populated by the preyed and the preyed upon, a land where men want to live, but at best merely survive. The film also raises the issue of the fate of the original inhabitants of the region.
Narrated by bounty hunter Silas Selleck (Michael Fassbender), the film is the story of 16 year-old Jay Cavendish (Kodi Smit-McPhee), a high-born native of the Scottish Highlands who has come to Colorado to locate the lower-born young woman Rose (Caren Pistorius). Silas declares that Jay is naïve, “a jackrabbit in a den of wolves.” And wolves there aplenty, with Silas himself being one of them. Saving Silas from three Union soldiers who are chasing down a Native American man fleeing from the destruction of his village, he offers to escort the hapless boy for $50 now, and $50 when they find the girl. He does not reveal that he is carrying a folded wanted poster with a $2000 reward for the capture of the girl and her father. He is using the boy, who apparently has obtained information as to where she and her father John (Rory McCann) are living in a cabin on the plains.
During the journey, which turns out to be a bloody one, the man and boy get to know one another a little better. Silas is an embittered realist. “Kick over any rock, and most likely a desperado would crawl out and knife you in the heart if there was a dollar in it,” he says. In one exchange of views, Jay observes: “There’s much more to life than just survival,”
“Yeah, there’s dying,” says the gunman.
There certainly is. At a dingy general goods store in the middle of nowhere, while Jay is behind a curtain trying on a suit (he notices it has a red-stained puncture in the coat where it covered the former wearer’s heart), a scraggly man and young woman enter intent on robbery. The owner shoots the man, but is killed by the girl. She turns her gun toward Silas. He tries to calm her down by repeating, “Just take a breath…” Jay emerges from behind the curtain with his gun pointed at her. When she will not lower hers, he shoots her in the back. Now he has joined those willing to kill, though he has not killed his conscience. Emerging from the store, they find a little boy and girl, apparently waiting for their parents. Knowing they are now orphans, Jay leaves his sack of goods with them.
Along comes a gang of ruthless bounty hunters, led by Payne (Ben Mendelsohn). We discover that Silas had been a member, and the leader would like him to rejoin them. They too are in pursuit of Rose and her father.
Through a series of cut aways, some back to Scotland, we learn why the pair had to leave Scotland. Rose enjoys Jay’s company, but, she tells him, she regards him as a brother, not a lover. In a night scene we see that it was Jay’s persistent pursuit of her, despite her rejection of his marriage proposal, that led to their flight. Hopeful that they will not be found in this vast new land, Rose has taken up with Native American Kotori (Kalani Queypo), who has been their helper.
At one low point in his relationship with Silas, Jay steals away early one morning. He encounters a man traveling in a wheeled shed, camped out on the prairie. Angus (Tony Croft) says he is documenting the downfall of the Aboriginal tribes. He is saddened to hear about the destroyed Native American village Jay had ridden through. “In a short time, this will be a long time ago,” he predicts. Angus’s welcoming Jay has been warm and generous, so we are as surprised as Jay when the boy wakes up in the morning, and Angus is gone—along with Jay’s horse and meager possessions, including his clothes. Silas catches up with the boy. He has brought along his horse and clothing. We are not let in on how he came by them, but we can guess the fate of the thief.
The climax of the film is in the Quentin Tarantino or Sam Peckinpah mode, or if you prefer the more highbrow, MacBeth. All have converged upon the cabin at the edge of a wheat field where Rose hopes a new life awaits her. The “all” includes a clergy-collared man we had seen earlier, but whose long, slim case he carries contains something more lethal than a Bible. Silas, having by now revealed to Jay that the large bounty on the heads of Rose and her father, has (and will) attracted bounty hunters like flies to a carcass, ties the boy to a tree to keep him safe. Payne and his band show up right after the faux preacher, and to our surprise have picked up the two orphans left behind by Silas and Jay. The shoot out is exciting, tragic, and even surprising in its result, especially for Rose who recognizes Jay too late. When the gunfire stops there is a montage of shots of those killed throughout the story, resembling a curtain call in which even the minor players take their bow—only these bullet punctured “players” are not able to stand, let alone take a bow.
Earlier in the film we hear Jay reciting the famous assurance from Psalm 91, but for him there is no deliverance. However, in what amounts to a coda, we see Silas repositioning the horseshoe in Rose’s cabin. It had been knocked askew by the hail of bullets shot into the cabin. Rose is there, and so are the two orphans. Silas observes that because of Jay he has left his old way of life behind, an observation that calls to mind another Scripture passage, the apostle Paul’s words from Romans (8:28 RSV), “We know that in everything God works for good with those who love him, who are called according to his purpose.” In the case of Silas, even with those who do not love him (at least at first), Jay’s life has indeed served a purpose, one beyond what he (or Silas) could see. Without knowing it at first, we have been watching a tale of redemption, one that affirms that the worst of us can change for the better.
This review with a set of discussion questions will be in the June issue of Visual Parables. A subscription to the journal will also give you access to Lectionary Links, a feature for preachers that links a film to one or more lessons from the Common Lectionary.