Sundance 2013: SWEETWATER Review

     January 23, 2013

sweetwater-january-jones-slice

I am a huge fan of the Western genre.  So between me and the filmmakers behind the Western Sweetwater, that makes one of us.  Writer-directors Logan Miller and Noah Miller are far more interested in half-constructed ideas based solely on what seems cool.  The film rolls along without any urgency even though the audience can tell the story from start to finish, and probably tell it better.   The filmmakers somehow managed to rope in great actors like Ed Harris and Jason Isaacs to play campy stock characters, but never had any idea how to fully take advantage of their talent.  Cinematographer Brad Shield even gives the movie the look of respectability.  Despite some pretty shots and entertaining performances, Sweetwater always feels lackadaisical and half-hearted.

The Prophet Josiah (Isaacs) tends to a small congregation and a large piece of land in the 19th-century West.  He’s also a complete psychopath who couches all of his fury in clichéd biblical rhetoric.  After killing a pair of traveling brothers for trespassing on his land, Josiah goes after rancher Miguel (Eduardo Noriega) and his wife Sarah (January Jones).  In what comes off as an Old West Homeowners Association dispute, Josiah tries to force Miguel off the land, and it leads to Sarah looking for some retribution.  Meanwhile, the eccentric Cornelius Jackson (Harris) comes to town to investigate the missing brothers, and quickly encounters the sneering Josiah.

The script for Sweetwater fails on almost every level.  It takes far too long for the story to begin as the Millers drag their feet on Josiah’s corny fire-and-brimstone sermonizing, setting up obvious conflicts, and introducing useless characters.  If the Millers were willing to be brutal with their story, they would have axed either Jackson or Sarah since neither plotline nor character has a deep connection to the other.  But the filmmakers just couldn’t seem to let go of the ECCENTRIC Jackson (I assume the word “eccentric” was capitalized in the script because the character is nothing more than quips, oddball dancing, a perfect investigative mind, and a colorful costume) or Sarah because they like seeing her cut of a path of bored vengeance.

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Personally, I would let go of Sarah since her storyline drags from the beginning, and Jones couldn’t seem to care less about her performance.  I can’t think of another actress who looks as bored onscreen as January Jones.  Even when her character is injured, the actress can’t be bothered to express what physical pain looks like.  Perhaps the Millers were enamored of the idea of putting a gun in the hands of a female protagonist on the hunt for revenge.  Like everything else in Sweetwater, they’re at a loss on how to actually build upon that idea or give it the screen time it deserves.  If the Millers are intent on pushing cartoonish characters like Jackson and Josiah, then there’s no reason to include Sarah who doesn’t come close to matching their intensity.

The choice between Sarah and Jackson is also worthless since Josiah is an all-purpose villain rather than a proper foil.  It doesn’t matter that Isaacs has charisma to spare; he’s still working within the confines of a character that has been done countless times before and done with far more imagination.  Isaacs cuts a striking figure as the black-clad prophet with a surprisingly muscular physique, but there’s no depth to the character.  He’s THE BAD GUY.  Rather than rack their brains at how religion could be used as a theme in their story, the Millers simply let Josiah spout Old Testament crap, and use the Good Book as an excuse for bad behavior.  Classic western villains may not have been complex, but they weren’t insufferably outlandish either.

It’s difficult to get upset at Sweetwater for being a bad western since the decision to set the film in the Wild West seems as arbitrary as everything else in the movie.  As long as something is shiny and distracting, the Millers feel no need to explain the reason why or work to effectively use the element they’ve crammed into their picture.  It doesn’t matter if Jackson has any semblance of a life outside his kooky behavior.  It’s no big deal if Josiah’s religious furor lacks any weight.  Who cares if Sarah is the world’s least enthusiastic avenger?  Logan and Noah Miller coughed up the beginnings of great ideas and then rushed them in front of a camera. Sweetwater would be an embarrassment in any genre.

Rating: D-

Click here for all our Sundance 2013 coverage.  Click on the corresponding links for my previous reviews:

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