If hatred is brewed with bitterness, then vengeance is its recompense made sweeter if it is executed without mercy. It is especially sweet if revenge is wreaked on deserving folks who appear to be saints but whose “behind closed doors” actions would make a devil blush.
Such vengeance is the focal point of Sweetwater, directed by Logan Miller and written by Logan Miller (screenplay), Noah Miller (screenplay) and Andrew McKenzie (story). Sweetwater is a cross-genre thriller western with a dusty laid back style sauced with Tarantinoesque, blaggard humor and grotesque characters. This indie film is a campy romp twitting the western “shoot-’em’-up”style. It is effective in setting up for scorn an all too recognizable modern day sleazebag rogue’s gallery and even more effective in felling them by two unlikely and off-kilter heroes. One is a quirky, free spirited, fearless, and crazy-brilliant Sheriff Jackson (Ed Harris). The other appears as a demure young woman (January Jones) who is trying for her second chance in life as a farmer’s wife. When Sarah Ramirez’s second chance blows up in her face, she is as crazy-fearless and unrelenting as Sheriff Jackson.
The setting is the parched, unfarmable terrain in the New Mexican territory of the 1880s before prosperity rode in and lifted up the weary, care worn settlers. The dimwitted, loopy and misdirected town is run by an incompetent, presumptuous, scruffy sheriff whose dart game holds more interest than searching murderers and assuring fair-dealing justice. Authorized to safeguard folks, Sheriff Kingfisher (Luce Rains) leaves the sheep pen open to wolves and coyotes. Sprinkled amongst the malevolent, paternalistic cretins are a storekeeper peeper and potential pederast, and a usurious, fee mongering banker, cut from the same cloth as today’s greedy financial types. Sheriff Kingfisher’s Laissez-faire attitude has also provided fertile soil to grow up a predator amongst predators. This is the hyper righteous, “hell-fire-and-damnation” pharisee, Prophet Josiah (a loathsome, unpredictable and frightening Jason Isaacs). The prophet has duped his unwitting, naive followers to do God’s bidding which is to satisfy Josiah’s every whim and command.
When a poor, Mexican sharecropper, Miguel Ramirez (Eduardo Noriega), and his beautiful former prostitute wife (January Jones), purchase a farm nearby and don’t join the preacher’s congregation, storm clouds swirl overhead and the tempest begins to blow. No one says “no” to the prophet and gets away with it easily. Prophet Josiah, who is a polygamist, notes the beauty of the sharecropper’s wife and the low class, unprotected, immigrant status of Miguel Ramirez. He is a patient man looking for opportunities. After the storm explodes in fury, three people are dead, including Miguel, but no crime has been committed. They are recorded as “the missing.” If the bodies are buried in the desolate, far reaching hills or plains, no one knows and certainly the last to be looking is the scraggly, dart obsessed lawman. If the murderer has killed with impunity and is enjoying his time in the sun, planning new conquests and triumphs, it’s a shame, but too bad. Nothing fruitful will be done about it.
Enter Sheriff Jackson. Sheriff Jackson is appointed by the governor to locate his two inexperienced and naive relatives on their way to Santa Fe. Jackson’s deductive powers bring him to the town to determine if they’ve been killed and why. When he gleans the incompetence of Kingfisher, he deposes the protesting dart-player in the only language the arrogant-negligent lawman understands; Jackson’s own brand of elegance and style. It is the first hysterical comedy break in the initial segment of the film. The humor and acute perspective Jackson presents contribute to the joy we feel when he serves up justice to the miscreant Kingfisher (a fine performance by Rains that with Harris’ actions make the scene work). Sheriff Jackson’s character with the help of the writers and directors teaches an important lesson about civil servants. If their behavior includes borderline criminal incompetence, gross negligence and corrupt in-your-face malfeasance, don’t take the high road! Kick ass and dump the offending brutes toute suite. As we are reminded, under their “authority” danger and evil flourish.
Jackson takes over the town to solve the 3 missing persons cases and in the process becomes the embodiment of justice. He demonstrates an impeccable lucidity and integrity that we admire and yearn for in leaders. The filmmakers have gone a long way to set up an environment which is low down in its corruptions and creates hopelessness for its citizens. The careful set up creates tension. We itch for Jackson to bring justice and given the circumstances, his ruthlessness is warranted. Though some may find the initial set up of Josiah overwrought, it is necessary. The filmmakers have provided the explanation why folks are snared by the prophet. Citizens don’t “take care of business in the present; they hire their “civil servants” to do it. And when the situation becomes egregious, they avoid reality through various means or live in the “by and by” waiting for deliverance from God, a boon for Prophet Josiah.
Sheriff Jackson is a “man of action,” the breath of fresh air after the storm. His no nonsense behavior reveals he will deliver bona fide change. He is not mouthing easy platitude to placate the sheep and keep them looking to the future. Ed Harris’ shepherd Sheriff has a steel staff with a sharp hook, and if he has to yank the sheep and beat to death the wolves to send a powerful message, he will find the killers quickly. Harris’s/Jackson’s confrontational detective work to uncover clues is fun to watch. Expectation is paused and serendipity abounds; he is marvelous, real and he continually surprises. Isaacs as the uber arrogant, grossly nefarious Josiah is Harris’ perfect foil. Their scenes together rock the film.
If film mavens are looking for a profound, innovative upgrade on recent western offerings, i.e. “Deadwood,” et. al., they will miss the director’s intentions and ambiance which float in atonal and dissonant ethers. They will also miss the crucial significance of the former prostitute, Sarah Ramirez’s (January Jones) nuanced character development as she emotionally devolves. This shift occurs after Miguel “abandons” her and she miscarries their child. Vulnerable and unprotected by any man, she is violently raped, but she must take all stoically, for after all, she is a woman in that time and place. When she happens upon two men digging up Miguel’s decomposing body tossed like garbage into a dirt pit, she knows her second chance is done. Her life is over. She emotionally dies. Having lost everything, she snaps like a fragile twig and goes on a bloodthirsty rampage to attain justice. In the killing she avenges her husband’s murder, her child’s death, her violent rape, her abusive, intolerant past. Whether this is going to give her a third chance in life is patently irrelevant. What she achieves with this is nobility. Come what may, she doesn’t care.
The film is illuminating in its revelation of female vengeance promoted and exacerbated by the exploiting, hyper-cruel attitudes of the nullifying male characters (save Miguel and Jackson). Ramirez (Jones) becomes a prototype; she is a Fury; she is an avenger for all her sex. If this seems played out, then the distant bell that tolls the behaviors toward women in that century bears listening to and remembering. Women were chattel, property; they could be used and abused by men at will. Women’s rights didn’t yet predominate; whether they were married or unmarried, women didn’t vote; their identity was their husband’s or their family’s. If their husband beat or killed them, the law often looked the other way unless there were mitigating circumstances and unless a precedent had been set for justice. If the woman was a prostitute, it was open season, and men and her madam enjoyed the ripe possibilities for torture, exploitation and cruelty. These were limited only to the imagination of the predator; the law didn’t apply.
Marriage, Ramirez’s only hope, was a slim possibility for a second chance at a pain free life. But the man who married a prostitute was lower than a groveling snake. And if he loved her, he was a stupid reptilian in the eyes of his “fellows,” the cultured types, men and women who made sure the social mores were as strong and unyielding as steel. So when we immediately learn that Sarah Ramirez, the wife of Mexican Miguel is a former prostitute and they are trying to make it farming and they are in a loving fun relationship, the message should be clear. It is certainly vital for understanding her actions later in the film. The love and respect between them runs far and wide. He is a good man above the mores of the culture; unfortunately, he happens to be Mexican and this is an offense.
The film doesn’t browbeat us with Ramirez’s past or Miguel’s meeting her; it alludes to it in a scene with Ramirez’s emotionally frozen mother who was her madam and chief exploiter (a brief, excellent turn by Amy Madigan). Sarah’s decline into cold-blooded murdering rampage is nuanced and clever characterization. Embracing death and killing exemplifies the only way she can gain power in a seething, violent male culture which enjoys abusing women. Deadening her self and wiping any thought for a new identity, she takes on attributes that are against her nature. In doing this, she forges a new way of being, albeit horrible and worse than death. The uncertainty of the film’s ending is appropriate to her devolution, her desperate choice, her emotional destruction.
Sweetwater holds call signs for us, given the global trending violence against women: global prostitution, kidnapping, modern day sexual slavery and recent popular films hyper objectifying women as sex objects while men abuse and exploit them with impunity. Sooner or later, women will gain power; it may be with violent eruptions because “enough is enough.” The film may resonate more with women who will identify with Ramirez’/Jones’ justice securing vigilantism. It will certainly poke male audiences against adopting attitudes and behaviors like some of the scummy, reprehensible male characters. Certainly, the filmmakers laud the actions of the noble male prototypes, the kind and loving husband Miguel and the keen-eyed, sharply edged Sheriff Jackson.
In its upturning the typical western thriller, it is worth viewing. It is especially notable for its fine performances by Harris, Isaacs and the ensemble. As for January Jones’ “emotionless” acting, she is superb in how she fine tunes her character to extinction. She, like Ramirez, shouldn’t be underestimated. That is a key point; and all the men in the film save Sheriff Jackson (who makes a wry joke about someone leaving the bodies) miss it until it’s too late. It’s an incredible irony. Lastly, the film’s sardonic humor and its trending issues viewed through an offbeat, unexpected lens reveal the thoughtfulness of the filmmakers.
The Blu-ray has thirty minutes of additional footage and interviews with Harris, the Millers, January Jones, Jason Isaacs and Luce Rains. They discuss the making of the film and what attracted them to the project. Harris comments on his prior relationship with the Millers. It is always interesting to note their impressions and interpretations of what the film is about.