SWEETWATER – a Movie Review
SWEETWATER, a beautifully produced western directed by Logan Miller and co-written by him and his brother Noah, opens with a mysterious, babbling figure, in the person of Ed Harris as Jackson, in a breathtaking New Mexico desert, dancing and making apparently religious incantations to the rising sun. Next we see Jason Isaacs as Prophet Josiah, amidst a phalanx of huge and oddly menacing white crosses, performing his own off-center-of-Christian ceremonies. These men represent the opposing forces that will butt heads over a murder and, in so doing, tear asunder the lives of January Jones and Eduardo Noriega as Sarah and Miguel Ramirez, a young married couple struggling to farm a future from the sun-blasted desert of New Mexico. They haven’t a snowball’s chance in Hell.
To put it mildly, the deck is stacked against the couple. We quickly gather that the young beauty is a former whore in a town where she used to ply her trade. Her husband Miguel is an eternal optimist, forever giving people the benefit of the doubt, but his generosity is wasted on people who see in him nothing but a dirty Mexican. Their paltry savings are stolen by the local banker. The local merchant is far more interested in voyeuristically pursuing Sarah than in doing business with them. When Prophet Josiah’s sheep eat their crops, and they suspect he’s killed their dog, the local sheriff is not even indifferent. He’s contemptuous.
Eduardo Noriega and Jason Isaacs
And Prophet Josiah who, with his flock, was run out of Utah, soon sets his sights on beautiful Sarah. Prophet Josiah is the man with the money and the power in this Hellish region, and has the willing support of all the local businessmen and government. At the same time, Sheriff Jackson has come to town to investigate the disappearance of two men, relatives of the Governor, whom we have seen Prophet Josiah murder for trespassing.
This is the grim world of the town of Sweetwater. Brad Shield, a 2nd unit cinematographer on many big movies, has a wonderful eye for simultaneously capturing the full-hued beauty and stark barren ugliness of the New Mexico desert. And the stunning but not over-glamorized loveliness of January Jones, who shoulders much of the forward momentum of the story.
Logan Miller directs with a precision and confidence that mirrors his strongest characters. Nothing is arbitrary in the telling. He is blessed with several strong actors, and skilled at drawing performances from them, and he has an impressive control of camera movement. There is almost a hypnotic sense of menace to the scene where Miguel is threatened by a pair of men who circle him, one on foot moving clockwise, the other on horseback moving counter-clockwise. It could have easily been overplayed, but it is all the more frightening because it seems natural, as does Miguel’s distraction. Another scene, a hunt through the maze of a sheep pen, is particularly intense.
Jason Isaacs, who first impressed as the sadistic Col. Tavington in THE PATRIOT, and continued hatefully as Lucius Malfoy in the HARRY POTTER movies, is excellent as the sanctimonious hypocrite Prophet Josiah. You watch him, knowing that you’d never follow him, but others would.
January Jones, famous as Betty Francis, later Betty Draper in MAD MEN, compels your interest and sympathy by the strength of her character, and determination against tremendous odds. She embodies the pioneer spirit. And rather than modernizing the story to make it ‘relatable’, it stays in period, and portrays the desperation of a lone woman searching a vast land for her missing husband. There is no phone, no police, no APB, no tracking a cell signal. Pregnant, alone and searching, she must still plow the land or see the crops die. She doesn’t have a sidekick to share her thoughts with, so much of her performance is facial and physical, and while she is helped by the occasional camera crane-shot showing the enormity of her challenge, the credit for the performance must go to her.
Ed Harris and a corpse
But the fun starts whenever Ed Harris appears on the scene. As Cornelius Jackson, with dapper suit and shoulder-length scarecrow hair, he’s part mystic, part detective and part loony. At times he plays it so broad it’s like he’s channeling Malcolm McDowell from CLOCKWORK ORANGE. But it’s sheer pleasure to watch him and Prophet Josiah face each other, especially the dinner scene where Jackson demonstrates his contempt for the religious leader.
SWEETWATER is a beautifully made Western, with a compelling plot, gripping action, strong performances, beautifully filmed and edited. It is an ‘R’ for a reason. In addition to some beautiful nudity on the part of Miss Jones, there is male nudity only a masochist would enjoy, apparent masturbation, sexual cruelty, and some rough language.
I do have some quibbles with moments that seem contrived. For no apparent reason, a man presents a woman with a parasol, so that she’ll later be able to jab him in the eye with it. Two men dig up a well-hidden body for the apparent purpose of being discovered doing it. A character says some revoltingly crude remarks just before being killed, as if to let us know that he’s no loss: believe me, we already knew. And just once in a while, I’d like to see a movie where a religious character is neither a hypocrite nor crazy.
SWEETWATER opens in theatres on Friday, October 11. It’s available on VOD right now.
An Interview with ANDREW MCKENZIE, the man who created SWEETWATER
I think if a writer had any idea how long it would take, and how difficult it would be, to get almost any movie made, he’d never even type FADE IN. Once you write your screenplay, if you’re lucky enough to have anyone interested in making you’re movie, the number of drafts, the number of changes asked for, the number of people who have input but disagree with each other about those changes – it’s mind-numbing.
But incredibly, sometimes movies do get made, and they often make the writer proud, even though the finished product is often far from the writer’s original vision. SWEETWATER is a movie that would make any writer proud. It is the brainchild of New Zealand-born Andrew McKenzie, and many a Western fan will guess at a major influence on his writing based on the title; Sweetwater is the town that McBain is trying to create out of the desert, by sheer force of will, in Sergio Leone’s masterwork, ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST. Kind of the way writers create reality out of paper by sheer force of will.
The screenplay is credited to Noah and Logan Miller. The story is by Andrew McKenzie. Here is his story of how the story of SWEETWATER came to be.
HENRY PARKE: I notice you’re from New Zealand. Did you grow up with western movies and TV shows?
ANDREW MCKENZIE: I grew up in a small town in New Zealand. I now call Melbourne, Australia home. New Zealand was isolated. We had two televisions channels, so a very limited choice in what to watch. The video store would only get one copy of a film and I recall that whenever we went to get a movie, something like EMPIRE STRIKES BACK, it’d be out, so we’d end up getting what was left, and there seemed to be a big population of Bud Spencer/Terence Hill films and Spaghetti Westerns. I related to Leone’s films in particular because they were very visual, about characters in isolation, struggling to survive. Probably relates to my childhood as well – I was more of an individual making my own rules rather than following everyone else.
HENRY: What westerns, western stars, western filmmakers, impressed you growing up? What are your favorite western movies? Who influenced your work?
ANDREW: The Spaghetti Westerns first and foremost. ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST is my all-time favorite. Strong visual storytelling throughout and a dry, laconic wit that suits me perfectly. I love the black comedy, the poetry of violence. I generally feel alienated by American westerns, aside from Peckinpah. I’m cynical about the mythic structure and prefer the true grit of a character rather than an archetype. The day I discovered THE WILD BUNCH though, my life changed. Peckinpah is the master storyteller. My favorite Peckinpah quote is that he didn’t make Westerns, he made stories about men on horseback, and that shone through for me in watching THE WILD BUNCH. Here was a story about people, individual people, and not a cardboard cut-out. There were no good guys in white hats and bad guys in black hats; everyone wore shades of gray.
HENRY: In watching the excellent New Zealand-lensed western GOOD FOR NOTHING, I was struck by how convincingly New Zealand stands in for the American West. Do you think there is a sort of kinship between the rural elements of the two countries, a similar sort of spirit to the people?
ANDREW: Both New Zealand and Australia have the Colonial spirit of migration, but it is also influenced by the environment in which they settle. Migrants to New Zealand may have had issues clearing the land, but the weather and climate meant that they didn’t have to fight as hard to survive. Australia, on the other hand, is arguably more like the frontier, and that in my opinion has formed part of the Australian character, hard and rugged. Whereas New Zealanders are inherently insecure and don’t strive to challenge. They’d rather play safe and conservative. I have to admit I haven’t seen GOOD FOR NOTHING. I think if you want a sense and feel of things, look at THE PROPOSITION, because it creates itself into a universe, like Leone’s work is poetry of violence, and that’s where I like to sit my work as well.
HENRY: The title SWEETWATER is clearly a nod to ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST, as the name of the town Brett McBain is planning to build. Was that the genesis of your story for SWEETWATER?
ANDREW: Yes, very clearly. I had to explain the reference at Sundance because nobody understood the context. In the screenplay there is a reference to the town being named Sweetwater, but they didn’t shoot it. I wrote SWEETWATER after I tried to get two of my other Western screenplays up and off the ground. I wanted to write a small intimate story that subverted all the genre conventions with the intention of directing it myself. The screenplay was originally set in New Zealand – hence the antagonist being a sheep farmer, but they left that in without context for the film. It was funny explaining to the cast at Sundance that that is why he was a sheep farmer, and then it all made sense. Apparently they had trouble finding enough sheep in New Mexico and even had to bring in some goats to fill out the herd. SWEETWATER was also a ‘thank you’ and tribute to my friendship with Sergio Donati and I thought it was a perfect story because both stories had strong female protagonists.
HENRY: How did you come to know Sergio Donati, who wrote the screenplay for ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST with Sergio Leone?
ANDREW: I was doing my Masters in Creative Writing, and my case study was ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST. I was a member of a few web boards for Spaghetti Westerns, and Sergio had posted somewhere at one stage. I made contact and said I’m a writer doing my masters, and we became friends from there. He is a legendary man, modest and humble, yet ever supportive.
HENRY: What was your working relationship with Donati? Did he have input on SWEETWATER?
ANDREW: It wasn’t so much a formal working relationship; we would just casually talk via email. In terms of SWEETWATER, I sent him the draft when it was finished and he read it and said he liked it. That endorsement meant a lot.
HENRY: Were you more influenced by American Westerns or Euro Westerns in general, and with SWEETWATER in particular?
ANDREW: Definitely the Euro. I meld everything up into a poetry of violence; there are harsh undertones but there is also humor. That’s one of the things I learned from Donati’s writing, like the gag at the end of FOR A FEW DOLLARS MORE, counting up the bounties. I love weaving characters and dialogue. The other big influences on me would be Peckinpah and THE WILD BUNCH, and David Milch’s DEADWOOD. Milch’s dialogue gave me breathing space to trust in my creative voice. When TRUE GRIT came out I again felt validated.
HENRY: How long did you spend writing SWEETWATER, and how many drafts?
ANDREW: Oh, that is a long and complicated story. It went through a variety of producers and drafts. I can’t even recall how many – probably I’m too scared to remember. At one stage when I changed producers I reverted back to my favorite earlier draft, and that was the one that got picked up.
HENRY: Westerns are such a tough genre to get made. What’s special to you about the form that made you want to do one?
ANDREW: See I don’t think I write ‘Westerns’, or ‘Oaters’. I’m more like Peckinpah in that it is about the character and the story. I will take the genre conventions and subvert them and will seldom adhere to them, but for me it is first and foremost about character. I love the notion of characters in isolation. I hate cell phones. I love putting characters into situations and having them forced to get themselves out of it. The ‘Western’ is the perfect environment for that. There is no cavalry, there is no rescue. You have to get yourself out of this situation, and that is what makes it emotionally engaging for the audience. SWEETWATER was a simple story about a farmer’s wife whose husband disappears one night. She is led by the town to believe that he has abandoned her. When she discovers his body, then she must rise up above all the conflict. Yes, she goes on the vengeance trail, but it is all told from the character’s perspective rather than the plot.
HENRY: How did you link up with the filmmakers?
ANDREW: A good friend of mine, David Eggby, who is a cinematographer, was going to shoot SWEETWATER for me when I was directing. He had shot a film called IRONCLAD for the producers and gave them the screenplay. That was at the time that TRUE GRIT had just come out. They picked up the option and things gathered momentum from there. The directors came on board because they had a working relationship with Ed Harris. The original producers and I stepped away from the production and things proceeded from there.
HENRY: What do you think of the finished film of SWEETWATER?
ANDREW: This part is tricky to respond to. I’ll be honest: I spent five years of my life attached to SWEETWATER, with the majority of those attached to direct. I guess I can be diplomatic and say that the filmmakers had a completely different vision to how I would have directed the film, but hey, that’s their prerogative. There are glimpses of it in the final film, but not enough to give me satisfaction.
HENRY: Were you pleased with the casting? January Jones, Ed Harris, Jason Isaacs, Eduardo Noriega?
ANDREW: Yes, I thought the casting was outstanding. I ended up spending most of my time at Sundance hanging out with Jason Isaacs. We have become good friends. I’m currently developing a television series for him.
HENRY: While the core of the story is the same, there are many changes. The movie’s Prophet Josiah is combined from your characters of Cole and Reverend Matthew. An ethnic subplot was added by casting Eduardo Noriega as Sarah’s husband. Another ethnic element, the American Indian characters, were removed. The sheriff, a relatively minor character in your story, as portrayed by Ed Harris in the film, is almost as important as your female lead, Sarah. What changes do you most regret?
ANDREW: I think the most regret I have is that so much screen time was taken away from the character of Sarah. It truly was supposed to be her story throughout. Here she was in this crazy world. She was a normal farmer’s wife in my script, an innocent of sorts. The first act set her up as supportive of her husband, but you didn’t know that she’s going to have the strength to carry the story through. In the second act, originally when she discovers the body, she goes on a pilgrimage to the church to have him buried. She tries to make sense of things before she goes on the vengeance trail. There were a lot of layers and threads that would have made the narrative more emotionally engaging, but hey, I’m biased.
HENRY: What have you written since SWEETWATER?
ANDREW: I’ve been extremely busy. I have another screenplay, CANVASTOWN, which I’ll call a period drama. It is set in Victoria, Australia in 1851, about a small mining community. I’m working on directing that. I’ve completed another couple of spec feature screenplays and have two television series pilots in development, including the one with Jason Isaacs. The writer’s life is always busy, creating new material. I do have a western TV series that I’d like to see go one day. It’s titled THE BLACK RIDERS and is inspired by the poetry of Stephen Crane.
Many thanks to Tom Betts, who writes the delightful and informative WESTERNS...ALLITALIANA!
site for suggesting this interview, and for introducing me to Andrew.
THAT’S A WRAP!
Can’t believe HELL ON WHEELS is over for another season! And don’t send me any comments about the ending just yet – I’m still four episodes behind! Try and catch SWEETWATER this week. You’ll be entertained and impressed. Next week, among other things, I’ll have a review of a group of thought-to-be-lost American silent films that were found in a New Zealand archive, and preserved.
All Original Contents Copyright October 2013 by Henry C. Parke – All Rights Reserved