Much like John Nichols’ 1974 novel of the same name, The Milagro Beanfield War is difficult to label as either a comedy/drama or a fantasy/shoot-‘em-up western. Despite this uncertainty of the film’s genre, Milagro displays a few fine moments of dramatic folklore and joy. However, in all of its warmth, the film possesses too many instances where its elation is broken up by unnecessarily erratic scenes.
In Milagro, New Mexico, a town that translates to “miracle” in Spanish, a clash between the quirky residents and the unjust authorities ensues. It all starts when Joe Mondragon (Chick Vennera) accidentally kicks a water main open—causing water to trickle down into his father’s old bean field. The only problem is that the water does not belong to Joe; it belongs to a band of developers, headed by Ladd Devine (Richard Bradford), who plans on transforming the town into a recreational center—equipped with condos, ski-slopes, and an 18-hole golf course.
By using the company’s water, Joe divides the town into supporters and cynics. Among the supporters are: Ruby (Sonia Braga), a local garage owner, Charlie Bloom (John Heard), a former attorney who now serves as the town’s newspaper editor, Herbie Platt (Daniel Stern), a NYU sociology student who is conducting research on the locals, and Amarante Cordova (Carlos Riquelme), the town’s oldest citizen who talks to angels and his pig. Meanwhile, as the town sheriff (Ruben Blades) attempts to mediate the far-from-gun-shy townspeople, a hired gun – named Montana (Christopher Walken) – is out to stop Joe from irrigating his land and end the community’s quarrel with modernity.
With The Milagro Beanfield War, it is difficult to distinguish exactly what Redford wants to stress. Is he pushing the preservation of land, the rise of the working-class, or the influence of the Anglo/Spanish/Indian culture? All of these themes – while intriguing in their own rite – appear to lose each other in the mix.
Sadly, between both Milagro’s fantastical scenes and Dave Grusin’s Academy Award winning score, a few weaker scenes jut out. For instance, Redford’s incorporation of numerous construction scenes – that are egregiously louder than any of the dialogue – is enormously distracting. In addition, scenes like the playful dancing of the angel at the beginning of the film followed by the argumentative town meeting further allow the film’s focus to become fuzzy.
In the case of The Milagro Beanfield War, most will exit their chairs feeling neutral—moved by its communal sentiments, yet unhappy with its unevenness. Nonetheless, it is inspiring to know that such a collective movement can be spiked by a simple batch of legumes. It’s just too bad Redford didn’t apply the correct concoction of water and sunlight to this screenplay. With a bit more emotion and focus, and less seams in the storyline, The Milagro Beanfield War could have been a picture worth harvesting. (**1/2 out of ****)