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Sweetwater

Sweetwater: Sundance Review

2:30 PM PST 1/22/2013 by Todd McCarthy

The Bottom Line

A watchable, derivative revenge Western with some colorful moments but no great distinction.

  

January Jones, Jason Isaacs and Ed Harris star in Logan and Noah Miller's Western, based on a story by Andrew McKenzie.

The Old West is portrayed as a venal loony bin in Sweetwater, a handsomely designed, occasionally funny but ultimately empty female vengeance yarn.

With one foot in a goofy spaghetti Western universe and the other in Kill Bill Tarantino territory where characters expound with unexpected loquaciousness, Logan and Noah Miller’s follow-up to their 2008 debut Touching Home, also starring Ed Harris, offers intermittent distractions for genre fans but lacks sufficient size or distinction to go very far theatrically.

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Set in what would seem to be the late 1800s in New Mexico (the film was shot in the Santa Fe and Abiquiu areas), the story has poor young couple Sarah (January Jones) and Miguel (Eduardo Noriega) being threatened by dominant local landowner Prophet Josiah (Jason Isaacs), an elegant, fire-breathing fanatic with a flock of submissive women who preaches strict adherence to the straight-and-narrow but clearly makes an exception where he himself is concerned; anything he does, no matter how brutal, is simply in line with God’s will.    

In a bizarre early scene that Sergio Leone would have admired, Sarah goes into town to shop and, while trying on clothes, is ogled through a knothole by the nutty proprietor, only to get his eye poked out with an umbrella by the merciless beauty. Played to an extent for comedy, this might seem like overkill on her part, but the act does suggest something about Sarah’s past as well indicate that she might have what it takes to survive in this harsh environment.

Two men having been brutally murdered in the prologue, an out-of-towner -- the eccentric, nattily dressed Sheriff Jackson (Harris) -- comes through from Tucumcari (which wasn’t actually founded until 1901) looking for them. Throwing the ineffectual present sheriff out on the street, Jackson takes over, giving Josiah something to think about, as the newcomer knows something about the preacher’s unsavory past.

But just as the two inevitable adversaries take each other’s measure at a fancy dinner, Josiah has Miguel secretly killed, leaving Sarah in a quandary until the inescapable Josiah shockingly decks her so he can have his way with the territory’s greatest beauty. He’s hardly the first, however; Sarah used to be a prostitute. But with her hope of quiet domesticity now shattered, she instead becomes an avenging bloody angel, tracking down and blowing away every guy who done her wrong.

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Although the film is nicely decked out and features some distinctive moments along the way -- Jackson deliberately scratching the pretentious Josiah’s imported fine wood dining table, a topless Sarah gunning down two bad boys while bathing in a river -- most of it feels derivative and generally predictable in its eccentricities. Other than to vilify the religious hypocrite, an easy game, and to exult in Sarah’s vengeance, there is no evident raison d’etre for the story, no palpable driving force behind the tale being told, leaving a rather ho-hum impression in its wake.

Isaacs and Harris obviously relish their melodramatic and, in the latter case, comic opportunities and are fun to watch as a result. As lovely a thing as any of these guys out west has ever seen, Jones comes across as more steely than gritty.