Monday, June 16, 2014

Reeling Backward: "Silverado" (1985)

Emmett: "Blind Pete always said you'd hang. I guess tomorrow at dawn, he'll be proved right."
Sheriff Langston: "10 a.m."
Emmett: "Oh, right. I always thought they did it at dawn."

"Silverado" is a film that I've never quite been able to peg. All I know is that I've always adored it.

Made in the dark days of the Western between "The Wild Bunch" and "Unforgiven," it would appear at first glance to be an homage to the genre. Made by and starring Baby Boomers, it reads like a bunch of kids playing dress-up and mimicking the shootin' and ridin' of John Wayne and other cowboys they themselves watched on film and TV.

The plot is essentially a pastiche of every great Western trope -- revenge duel, cattlemen vs. farmers, a corrupt lawman, a hero in a black hat, a pretty woman who tempts a wandering soul into settling down, a young boy who idolizes the gunman who's known only a life of tragedy. There's even a modernist angle with a proud African-American standing up to a bunch of racist cowpokes threatening his family.

(About the only thing it's missing is a subplot involving Indians, of which there's not a one.)

And yet, director Lawrence Kasdan, who co-wrote the script with his brother Mark, often lets the proceedings wander into the territory of parody. The part I've never figured out is whether it's intentional or not.

Consider the quote above. That's just this side of pure comedy. When the cowpoke Emmett delivers the last line, that's not the stern pronouncement of a well-worn cowhand who's ridden everywhere and seen it all. It's the postmodernist quip of a guy in 1985 making a pun out of every movie he's seen that included a hanging.

(For that matter, who the hell is Blind Pete? He's referenced twice in the movie without any other information being provided. Presumably he's another familiar Western type, the crazy/smart old codger. This way Kasdan gets to summon his image without having to bother with actually creating and casting a character.)

Emmett is played by Scott Glenn, one of my all-time favorite "That Guy" movie actors. With his lean, creased face, rangy physique, squinty eyes and gruff voice, he was born looking like he wandered out of a Hollywood Western poster. Emmett has just finished doing five years in prison for manslaughter after killing the patriarch of the McKendrick clain, the local cattle barons. Taciturn and tough, Emmett comes closest of the film's four cowboys to the classic Western hero archetype.

Technically Emmett is the main character, though Glenn receives second billing to Kevin Kline. He plays Paden, a funny/sad gambler/gunman with a wise disposition and fatalistic bent. When we first meet him he's been robbed of everything he owns and left in his longjohns to die in the desert. After being rescued by Emmett, he proceeds to recover his beloved horse, hat and gun in subsequent shoot-outs with his robbers. Paden is a cynic who often takes on lost causes, and a romantic whose passions drift like a tumbleweed, until they stop in the most unexpected places.

Like Kasdan himself, Kline was just coming off the huge success of "The Big Chill." Jeff Goldblum was also in both movies, relishing a small part as turncoat card-dealer Slick. Technically, Kevin Costner was too, though as is well known in Hollywood lore, Costner's role as the dead friend being grieved was left on the "Chill"-y cutting room floor.

Perhaps that's why the role of Jake, Emmett's callow hot-head of a brother, is so deliberately showy -- Kasdan, perhaps sad over depriving an actor of his breakout role, decided to provide him another. All Jake really does is kiss girls, shoot bad guys with his fancy two-gun rig, and smile at the camera. Soon Costner was landing leads in big productions like "The Untouchables" and "No Way Out," and he was off to the races.

Danny Glover plays expert rifleman Mal, just returned from working in the slaughterhouses of Chicago, only to find his family plot overrun with McKendrick cattle, his mother dead of illness, his father soon murdered, and his sister run off to Silverado to become a whore. He gets a nice introductory scene where he's refused a drink of whiskey in a saloon because of his skin, and takes down three fat-faced white guys who try to enforce the unwritten rule.

He's run out of town by Sheriff Langston, a stiff Brit played for comic relief by John Cleese, who was also planning to hang Jake on trumped-up charges. When the boys break out of town, Cleese delivers the funniest line in the movie: After chasing them into a trap where they're pinned down by Mal's marksmanship, Langston decides to abruptly give up the chase. "Today my jurisdiction ends here," he announces, turning his horse around.

Cleese also got very high billing in the credits unwarranted by his limited screen time, though even he's beaten out by Rosanna Arquette. Billed third, she has maybe four total minutes in the movie, and only two dialogue scenes totaling 119 words. (Yes, I counted.) The character exists solely as a sweet-faced lure to the dusty rawhides who dream of a better, settled life.

If Arquette provides an unsatisfactory female presence, then Linda Hunt makes up any difference. Playing Stella, the pint-sized manager of The Midnight Star, the high-end saloon that bears her nickname, she has a small but solid role as a symbol of decency and workaday toughness. Accustomed to serving on the fringes of other people's indulgences, she's surprised to find herself the object of unexpected affections.

Hunt, having recently won an Oscar -- for playing a character of the opposite gender, still the only performer ever to do so -- shows what you can do with a tiny, tidy role that's well-written and splendidly played.

The rest of the cast is filled out by Brian Dennehy as Cobb, the smiling, winking bandit-turned-sheriff who's firmly in the McKendrick pocket; Jeff Fahey as the local crazy-eyed killer; Lynn Whitfield as Mal's sister Rae; Thomas Wilson Brown as Augie, Emmett and Jake's wide-eyed nephew; the inimitable James Gammon as a gravel-voiced outlaw leader; and Thomas Wilson Brown, a generic and throwaway villain as McKendrick.

Everything in "Silverado" is filmed in a precious way as if trying to recreate the best moments of classic Westerns. The movie opens with a shot from inside a tiny cabin out the doorway into the grand, valley-filled landscape beyond, a fairly deliberate borrowing from "The Searchers." The booming musical score by Bruce Broughton, replete with trumpets and other brassy brass, earned an Oscar nomination, as did the sound crew.

(It was Broughton's song, "Alone Yet Not Alone," that got an Oscar nomination for Best Song last year but got disqualified under some arcane rules of the Academy. Broughton sent out a few dozen emails to his friends in the movie biz asking them to give it a listen, which the Academy disallowed as "campaigning." Yet the annual suck-up-fest perpetrated for whatever Weinstein movie on tap trundles on.)

So is "Silverado" an homage, a parody or something else entirely? After seeing it again for perhaps the dozenth time, I confess I still haven't decided. My gut tells me it's a serious paean, a recreation of the cowboys-and-Indians games (minus the Indians) Kasdan & Co. grew up playing.

But then I watch again scenes like Emmett practicing his gunplay, and I wonder still. There's one part where he's aiming at a cactus plant with his rifle from maybe 50 yards away. Not only does he hit the plant, he shoots off individual spines, one at a time. This is so absurdly ridiculous that I can't believe the filmmakers taking it seriously, or imagining anyone in the audience doing so, either. It's stuff like this that makes me think the movie has just gone momentarily goofy.

Sometimes I laugh at "Silverado," and sometimes I just sit back and admire its fanboy, fetishistic take on the Western. What I do know is, whenever I watch this film, I'm grinning as wide as the dusty plains.

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