The Far Side of Jericho

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Tim Hunter, the director best known for his films "River's Edge" and "Tex," has been working mainly in television in recent years. He returns to the big screen with a female-driven Western, "The Far Side of Jericho," that demonstrates great affection for the genre without really resurrecting it. Given the dim audience response to Westerns in recent years, the film is only attempting a brief theatrical release in Los Angeles, then will head straight to DVD.

"Jericho" was the brainchild of the three leading actresses -- Suzanne Andrews, Judith Burnett and Lissa Negrin, friends in real life, who came up with the idea of a Western focused on women. This isn't a brand-new notion, of course. Nicholas Ray's campy "Johnny Guitar" memorably pitted Joan Crawford against Mercedes McCambridge. More recently, "Bad Girls" teamed Madeleine Stowe, Drew Barrymore and others in a feminist look at the Old West. Andrews, Burnett and Negrin approached Hunter with their idea for a less glamorized female Western.

The basic story in a script by Rob Sullivan and rewritten by novelist James Crumley is simple enough: Maxine (Andrews), Claire (Burnett) and Bridget (Negrin) are the widows of three outlaw brothers hanged in the movie's opening sequence. The brothers left a buried treasure that the women decide to unearth. They are pursued by a whole gang of greedy varmints, including the town sheriff and his posse, a couple of Pinkerton detectives and a crazed preacher who all want the loot.

While this quest provides the primary narrative thread, there are many subplots, including the troubled backstories of the three women. Along the way they interact with a young man raised by Apache, and the tribe also intrudes on their journey. In addition, the three widows are regularly visited by ghosts of their dead husbands. Then there's a mysterious stranger who rears up like the Lone Ranger when the women are in trouble.

The movie benefits from the handsome widescreen photography by Patrick Cady, and Mark Adler's rousing score evokes classic scores by Dimitri Tiomkin and Elmer Bernstein. In the last analysis, the film is too clumsily executed to be very satisfying to anyone except die-hard genre fans. All the unwieldy subplots dilute the tension, and some of the elements, like the supernatural trappings, seem completely irrelevant.

While the three actresses have an appealing grittiness, they aren't always up to the demands of the roles. Andrews as the weathered ringleader comes off best. Burnett, as the alcoholic widow with a history of sexual abuse, has some affecting quiet moments, but her emotional outbursts fail to convince.

On the other hand, the supporting cast is strong. Patrick Bergin as the sheriff, Lawrence Pressman as a corrupt banker and James Gammon as the maniacal preacher lend vivid support. The gunfights are well staged, and it's worth noting that though there is a lot of shooting, not many people actually get killed. Maybe that's an outgrowth of the movie's feminine sensibilities.

THE FAR SIDE OF JERICHO
First Look Pictures
Further Prods.
Credits:
Director: Tim Hunter
Screenwriters: Rob Sullivan, James Crumley
Producer: Tom Shell
Director of photography: Patrick Cady
Production designer: Mark Alan Duran
Music: Mark Adler
Editors: Tina Hirsch, Sunny Hodge
Cast:
Jake: Patrick Bergin
Van Damm: Lawrence Pressman
Preacher: James Gammon
Maxine: Suzanne Andrews
Claire: Judith Burnett
Bridget: Lissa Negrin
Jemmy Thornton: C. Thomas Howell
Cash Thornton: John Diehl
Running time -- 99 minutes
No MPAA rating
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