Home Video Hovel- Sweetwater, by Tyler Smith
I kind of feel sorry for anybody that tries to make a Western these days. At this point, the most quintessentially American of film genres has been explored in almost every possible way. There are straightforward Westerns, revisionist Westerns, Western parodies, Spaghetti Westerns; the list goes on and on. Hell, a few years ago, there was even an Australian Western. Anybody looking to make a Western certainly has their work cut out for them, simply because the audience has likely already seen whatever addition to the genre the filmmaker has to offer.
And so it is with sympathy that I discuss Logan Miller’s Sweetwater, an earnest attempt to make an interesting and engaging Western that ultimately brings nothing new to the table. That’s not to say that there isn’t anything good in the film; it has a fairly strong visual style and features some very committed performances. It’s even pretty well written. And yet somehow these solid elements don’t add up to a memorable film.
One of the reasons might be the unfortunate decision to cast January Jones in the lead role of a tough-as-nails former prostitute bent on avenging the murder of her husband. Jones is one of those actors that can be truly wonderful in the right role, but seems lost inside the majority of character types. Truly, her work in Mad Men is laudable, and the importance of her nailing a character as fragile and of-her-time as Betty Draper cannot be stated strongly enough. Sadly, Jones doesn’t have the type of range that allows her to play just any character. And her seeming emotional disconnect from her character’s circumstances- so key to a successful performance in Mad Men– does not serve her well at all in Sweetwater, in which the character’s emotions are her key motivators. And while I appreciate the decision to have a woman be the lead role in a Western, the decision is nullified by Jones’ inability to hold her own against a much stronger ensemble of actors, including Ed Harris and Jason Isaacs.
And indeed the rest of the cast is very good, each approaching his role with gusto and enthusiasm. Harris plays an eccentric lawman, investigating the disappearance of the governor’s brother-in-law. This investigation leads him into a small town theocracy led by sociopathic preacher Jason Isaacs, the man responsible for the death of Jones’ husband. There are a few scenes between these two actors, but they are indeed electric. The combination of Harris’ flippant-yet-sharp observations and Isaacs’ pious hypocrisy allows both actors to play well off one another, often saying innocuous things as they size one another up. Were the film primarily about these two men, with the Jones character relegated to supporting status (or maybe just recast), Sweetwater may still have been familiar, but would have been engaging nonetheless.
In the end, the film is pretty unmemorable and certainly isn’t doing anything particularly new, but that doesn’t mean it’s a bad film. There are strong performances and some interesting scenes. It doesn’t add up to much, but fans of the genre will likely find enough in there to enjoy the experience, at least while they’re watching it. They just shouldn’t expect it to linger very long after the film is over.