Fenced in and shot down by Sam Peckinpah, the Western enjoyed a last supper of cheese-and-red-sauce spaghetti before its relevance faded into the mist of myth. Now, in the same month as Kevin Coster's Open Range, Ron Howard aims to resuscitate the genre with a retro-oater that glances back over its shoulder at John Ford's 1956 classic The Searchers. It's a Western, all right. But it's still a Ron Howard movie.
Where Ford's search was tortured odyssey, Howard's is a good ol' Hollywood thriller - a race against time as single mum Maggie (Cate Blanchett), her youngest daughter (Jenna Boyd) and her estranged father Samuel (Tommy Lee Jones) must catch the nasty Injuns before they vanish into Mexico with Lily (Evan Rachel Wood). But don't panic, PC audiences! It's not just nasty Injuns - there are nasty white men in the posse, too. And even though the kidnapped women are to besold as prostitutes, their captors never molest them. Phew. Moral calamity avoided...
But really, single mothers and noble savages? In the Wild West? Nope, it's definitely Howard country we're riding through, and his anti-reactionary angle shouldn't be much of a surprise. Making like Frank Capra's long-lost ginger son, little Ron's spent his career wrestling with a hardcore addiction to happy families and neat conclusions. Same deal here, the director bubble-wrapping his yarn with predictable proficiency: clattering horse's hooves, standard-issue shootouts, family reconciliations, weirdy mysticism and the final, inevitable head-to-head rumble between Jones and the Big Baddie (Eric Schweig).
But the dusty period tone feels right, Salvatore Totino's stark cinematography parching the landscape with craggy menace. Even more pleasing is the grimy savageness of the violence: our intro to Blanchett's character is a spot of in-yer-face DIY dentistry, as she sternly rips a gammy tooth from the mouth of an old hag. Not long after, we're watching a body left to roast over a campfire, a man bleeding from the eyes after getting a face-full of voodoo dust and a young mother blowing her own brains out. Ransom's claret-rinsed denouement showed how Howard can turn tough. Here, it works for him again - as do the cast.
The ever-leathery Jones wisely underplays his faux-Indian tree-hugger, deadpanning some much-needed humour to offset the grimness and increasingly yawnsome pacing. Blanchett and Wood, too, add vigour to roles that certainly need it. Better still, we get a cracking villain - a looming, leering Apache witch-man who's scary enough without his black-magic jiggery-buggery. That said, we're always pretty sure things are going to turn out just fine because, well... It's a Ron Howard movie.
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Saddle-sore at more than two hours, Ron Howard's throwback thriller isn't the genre resuscitator it wants to be. Period grit, though, keeps it on target.