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Valentine Casey is a Marshal in the desolate Tucson territory of the early 1900s. On Christmas Eve, his outlaw family pays him a disturbing visit. He must confront the sins of his past. He and his partner, U.S. Christmas, journey through the desert to a small town that the ruthless Henry Clan has hit in order to save Casey's love, Adelyne. Written by
Sujit R. Varma
Having viewed this film three times now, I think I finally have enough together to write a decent review for it. First off, I waited a long time to see this (over two years) and it definitely did not dissapoint. Mainly because I knew the direction that Dwight Yoakam was moving in on this one. He wanted to create a western that was a bit different than the standard shoot 'em up and he wanted to create a story that mirrored a lot of events from his own life while ,at the same time, not spelling everything out for the audience and letting them think and decipher for themselves. While he certainly succeeded in doing this, he also manages to use the ensemble cast for all its worth by bringing in the biggest mix of oddball and eccentric characters I've seen since Jim Jarmusch's "Dead Man".
"South of Heaven, West of Hell" uses the pretty basic story (seemingly) of a man, Valentine Casey (Yoakem) who has been raised by an adoptive family known as the Henrys. The Henrys are led by none other than western vet Luke Askew who seems to have the most level head of the gang. His socio-path son Taylor (Vince Vaughn) does most of the running while his cronies (Paul Reubens and Michael Jeter) follow him around like whipped puppies. Natalie Canerday (Linda from Sling Blade) plays Sissy, the child like sister of the brood who is desperately in love with Valentine. At some point, before the story starts, Valentine dissowned the outlaw family who raised him and fought in the Spanish American war, later becoming a sherriff.
All is peaceful for Valentine, living the life of a sheriff in a town where nothing happens, until the Henrys come riding into town raising all manners of hell and pulling a "wild bunch" style attack. A few people are killed (the Henry's must not be much for target practice since they fired over a hundred rounds) and a couple more are shot. Valentine waits about a year, then retaliates. That's all I'm going to say in the way of the story, but there's a lot more than that.
Let's talk about the characters for a minute. Ol' Val is about the sanest one of the bunch. He's a mild-mannered, likeable guy who is tough only when he has to be. His side kick is an "odd bird" who has a thing for wearing dresses. Bo Hopkins plays Doc Angus Dunfries, a blacksmith. A barely recognizable Billy Bob Thornton comes into town as a traveller named Brigadier Smalls. With him is his travelling buddy, the nearly mute Babcock (Warren Zevon). They are escorting Adelyne (Bridget Fonda), Doc Angus's niece, and Val's soon-to-be love interest. Paul Reubens (looking very much like he did in "Buffy the Vampire Slayer) plays one sick puppy here, as one of the twisted members of the Henry tribe. One of my favorites was Bud Cort, playing a government agent with some papers that strongly suggest that Valentine was killed in the war. He gets off the train, whining about the heat and a toothache. It's pretty clear that this guy is here mainly for comic-relief. He appears to have the worst luck in history and the belt scene had me in stitches.
It's easy to see why this only got a limited theatrical release. "South of Heaven, West of Hell" isn't necessarily the kind of film that the masses will flock to. I think Yoakam made the film with that in mind, knowing that it would find it's intended audience on video. It's true that the majority just won't get it. To enjoy this film, you have to go into it with an open mind and sort of block out everything around and that's something that a lot of people just aren't capable of. It's hard to explain just what kind of movie this is but I think Vince Vaughn summed it up best, in an interview, by saying that it is the "punk rock of westerns".
I enjoyed this movie a lot and I'm sure it will probably go down as one of my year's favorites. There is a lot here to enjoy and one viewing is not enough. There is a lot of black comedy that I didn't pick up on the first time around and there is also a lot more going on with and between the characters than what is going on on-screen. It's not just "worth a viewing". It's worth several.
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