Terror on the Prairie: Best of the West, by Tyler Smith
Though rigidly specific in its iconography, the Western genre is surprisingly broad in its scope. Some Westerns take place over decades, featuring dozens of characters and intricate action sequences. Others, however, strip away everything from the genre until it is in its purest form: the wide open spaces, a few guns, and a confrontation. Michael Polish’s Terror on the Prairie falls into the latter category, and even goes further than even the starkest of these, resulting in a lean, mean Western that creates a near-constant tension, with none of the genre frills to provide comfort for the audience. Though the film is far from perfect, it is a solid, engaging modern Western.
The story revolves around a family struggling to make ends in rural, post-Civil War Montana. Discontented Hattie (Gina Carano) strives to stand by her husband, Jeb (Donald Cerrone), but quietly desires to return to urban life in Missouri. Aware of his wife’s growing frustration, Jeb travels to a nearby town to find a job, leaving Hattie and her children alone. A small posse of criminals, led by a jovial man simply called “The Captain” (Nick Searcy), approach Hattie, who initially invites them into her home, but soon realizes they are a danger to her children. She kicks the criminals out and barricades herself inside her home. The outlaws refuse to ride on, eager to get back into the cabin, revealing that they know more about Hattie – and Jeb – than she initially suspected.
With minimal stylistic flourishes and literally no scoring, a film like this is reliant on the dialogue and acting to sell the stakes of the situation, and Terror on the Prairie features a strong ensemble of character actors who look right at home in this unforgiving territory. The strongest performance, unsurprisingly, is given by Nick Searcy, who, despite being a reliable character actor, is often underutilized. Here, though, as the Bible-quoting, charismatic leader of the posse, he is allowed to strut and seethe, all while imbuing the character with recognizable motivations. Like any genre, the most memorable Westerns owe a lot to their villains, and The Captain is a doozy.
As Hattie, Gina Carano displays both her strengths and weakness as an actor. Her delivery is occasionally stilted. She sounds unsure of herself, which undercuts the confidence of the character. Carano’s true talent is in her physicality. A former MMA fighter, Carano is so in tune with her body that we believe her when she plays physically strong characters like a soldier in The Mandalorian or an assassin in Haywire. Hattie is a woman who needs to believably hold her own against multiple seasoned criminals, and a less confident actor could let herself be swallowed up by the situation. The combination of Carano’s less-than-perfect line delivery and her physical sturdiness actually works – albeit accidentally – to make Hattie a character who is tremendously capable, but may not actually know it.
Carano is helped by a script that allows Hattie to be a woman of action and not words. And she is given solid support through Steeven Petitteville’s capable camerawork, which can quietly reveal what the dialogue cannot. The film may not have much extraneous style, but it is still photographed and edited in a way that plays into an atmosphere in which what a person says is never quite as trustworthy as what they don’t. While the tight-lipped nature of the characters sometimes leads to audience confusion about motivations, it goes a long way in creating a larger tone of uncertainty and fear.
In the end, Terror on the Prairie is an effective little Western. It may not have the larger thematic scope of films like Unforgiven or The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, which attempt to deconstruct the genre. Instead, it finds its company more in films like Appaloosa and Open Range. It is a film that finds beauty and comfort in the trappings of the genre, even while engaging in its darker elements.