Monday, November 11, 2013

Damn the Man That's Standin' in His Way

Tomorrow, Kino Lorber is releasing to Blu-ray and DVD a film called Shoot the Sun Down, a Western from 1978 co-written (with Richard Rothstein) and directed by David Leeds. This is the only film Leeds ever made, and upon learning this I automatically assumed that something terrible had happened to him, but thankfully that's not the case. Why he left the film business I don't know, but now he's a sculptor, painter, and poet -- he's doing just fine! Don't worry! I would still very much like to know why he left films behind, though, and I'd like to know the story behind the making of Shoot the Sun Down, because I'm sure there must be one. All the Blu-ray offers is an alternate title sequence that features an original song written and performed by Kinky Friedman. What else was going on, I haven't a clue.

By this I don't mean to imply that I think Shoot the Sun Down is a bad movie. In fact, I rather enjoyed it. It's a modest version of the sort of ambitious bleak Westerns like McCabe & Mrs. Miller and Heaven's Gate that we all remember with great fondness/outrage from the 70s and just barely into the 80s. David Leeds, on the basis of this one film, strikes me as more Monte Hellman than Michael Cimino, an entirely wonderful thing to be. This film, Shoot the Sun Down, is about a quiet gunfighter, but not one looking for trouble, named Rainbow(!) played by Christopher Walken who wanders into a situation that hitches him against his will to a group of characters who are mostly no good. Most of the characters outside of Rainbow don't have names, but filling out the core group is The Captain (Bo Brundin) who is seeking gold and a British woman who was sold to him as basically a maid, or, in this particular case, "slave" (Margot Kidder), and lastly another man seeking gold, and Indian scalps, played by Geoffrey Lewis. Over the course of the film, the characters played by Brundin and Lewis will form an uneasy alliance to find Montezuma's Gold, and the woman and Rainbow will form a bond, partly romantic but primarily based on her desire to be free of the Captain and Rainbow's desire to free her.

There is some element of politics in Shoot the Sun Down, of a "this nation was built on blood" variety, though I believe Kino's description of it plays that up a bit too much. More than anything, the film is a standard, and solid, dark drama of violence, most of it, the worst of it, pending, and inevitable. If these four characters are fated to meet up, that most or all of them will die is inevitable. The performances are all very good -- Walken doesn't have to do much but sit back and calculate and softly call the two villains on their shit, which he's of course very good at. Brundin and Lewis play flipsides of villainy, Brundin being somewhat in denial about what he is, Lewis fully conscious and pleased about his own awfulness. Though it's not a scenery-chewing performance, Lewis, a good actor who I've rarely seen in a role this major, actually strikes me here as a little bit of an Elmore Leonard bad guy -- smarter than most people, yet grimy, aware of how smart Rainbow is but maybe thinking that knowledge is enough to win, this comfort being his weakness. Brundin, meanwhile, since I'm thinking of this, is very much like one of Leonard's subvillains -- arrogant, announcing himself morally justified but not able to convince anybody including himself, not worldly, only avaricious. And so on. This is the sort of thing that makes the film work. Helping things along, even if she is only playing "the woman," is Margot Kidder, not an actress I would have thought capable of pulling off a convincing British accent, but she does. Oh, she lets "New Orleans" trip her up, but otherwise quite solid, as is her work overall -- the character is an archetype, maybe, the flinty-yet-vulnerable woman of the frontier, but Kidder's performance doesn't stick a flag in the ground and make a big show about Women in the West; she's just the person, and it's easy to root for her freedom.

Now. But. So. Shoot the Sun Down is a curious film, though, because in the midst of all that's good about is a lot that seems wrong, like something happened during shooting or post-production or something. Time and again, scenes suddenly end, either with a sharp cut or even with a fade-out, long before it seems all the information the scene might have to offer has been given. This isn't to suggest the film is confusing, but there's a rhythm to scenes in your standard narrative film that David Leeds is either flouting without any sense of why he's doing it or how to do it, or something was forced on him. It's not that scenes end right after a character says "And another thing!"; it's more that they end just before a character says "And another thing!" Awkward, too, is the violence, which is a mix between the old Hollywood style of "get shot, grab your chest, sink to the ground" and the blunter, more visceral kind ushered in by films like The Wild Bunch. But since Shoot the Sun Down is rated PG, the visceral stuff in the film is harsh only up to a point, and the death of one character, as Leeds appears to have looked for a way around blatant gore and into a zone of implied horror, is particularly absurd.

This same half-reticence regarding violence pays off on one very important occasion, or two closely related occasions, which I won't spoil, but it works because gallons of blood isn't necessary to get across the trauma. Even this is weirdly edited, and it's not until minutes after this violence occurs that we even know what happened. It all works out in the end, though, and Shoot the Sun Down ends on an up-note, in terms of quality. It's fitting for the whole film, too, since from the beginning David Leeds' only film is about 90 minutes of strong writing and acting held back by genuinely baffling editing. It alternates throughout, and, as a matter of fact, the very beginning is one of the film's lamest scenes. It's only right and fair that it should end strong.

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