Reviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 07/23/13 06:25:32

"A wild, wild, wild western."
4 stars (Worth A Look)

SCREENED AT THE 2013 FANTASIA INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: Ed Harris. Western. There, that should have sold everyone... Oh, you need more? Fine. "Sweetwater" (also known as "Sweet Vengeance") is a dark, bloody Western that is both fairly traditional and over-the-top crazy, with a fairly great cast. Including Ed Harris in a role that really needs to be seen to be believed.

He plays a New Mexico lawman tracking two men across the unforgiving landscape, although they've already had the poor fortune of crossing paths with Josiah (Jason Isaacs), both the largest local property owner and the leader of its local church - he calls himself prophet and his ranch "Holyland". The rest of the community bends to his will, with the exception of farmer Miguel Ramirez (Eduardo Noriega) and his beautiful wife Sarah (January Jones). Well, them and Jackson, who has installed himself as sheriff by literally kicking the old one out of his office.

You've got to sort of feel sorry for January Jones, in a way. She gives a perfectly acceptable performance as Sarah - playful, determined, extremely capable without seeming like she's all skills, cold hate when that's what sustains her character - and it's just going to get blotted out by what Jason Isaacs and Ed Harris are doing. Isaacs rips into his part as the villain with gusto, taking the sort of monster who wraps his viciousness in holy words and somehow squeezing just a bit of extra authority to it, not so much defiantly daring anybody to oppose him as knowing that nobody has the nerve. Harris, meanwhile, is playing a guy who just does not care what anyone else thinks and may very well be insane, and he's got more or less free reign to chew any scenery that happens along. Watching Isaacs and Harris go at it, their characters clearly despising each other and used to getting their own way, is a kick.

Twin filmmakers Logan & Noah Miller give their stars full license to go mad, feeding them a series nasty lines and actions that are darkly funny on their own but add up to a vision of the Old West where it is clearly every man for himself and a woman - especially one with Sarah's background - has to be just as fierce without giving any outward sign just to get by. Everything is corrupt, from the bank to the church to the five and dime, but what's the point of whining about it?

Especially when there are guns to pull out. The crimes of the first act will be avenged with interest in the last, and it's a bloody process. The Millers aren't going for a somber Western, but one where the audience can enjoy the process of retribution, grim as its necessity may be. Blood spurts in the manner of an exploitation picture, and there may be another indignity beyond that. It's fast-paced enough that it doesn't start to wear on audiences, communicating a lot of anger without necessarily adding sadism to the mix.

It's a nice-looking movie, too - the New Mexico locations are desolate and beautiful, and the western town seems authentic while being as strange and individual as this particular movie needs. It's populated by a group of actors that fit right into the setting, so that as the movie goes down some bizarre paths, it still feels like a real Western rather than people imposing their twenty-first-century ideals on a bygone period - it's just a world that was crueler and stranger than it is often imagined to have been.

And, okay, "Ed Harris in a western" may be a bit of a deceptive sales pitch; this is a movie that aims to make the audience audibly wonder if they just saw what they think they did, and half the times it happens, it's because of Harris's character. Both the mean and weird streaks serve "Sweetwater" well, though, especially if one isn't quite ready for how crazy it's going to get.

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