Surely a film written and directed by Pulitzer prize winner Sam Shepard, starring those fine actors Richard Harris and Alan Bates, with the added poignancy of being the last performance by River Phoenix before his premature death, had to be worth watching. Sadly a great pedigree does not always result in a fine film. There are occasions like this one, that the final product is simply a load of old cobblers. How such talent manages this is quite beyond me. Shepherd attempts to make a revisionist type western in the same vein as Jim Jamrmusch's much better "Dead Man", with elements of the Greek tragedy, but these noble intentions simply crash and burn.
The story concerns a young man who is sent into madness by the death of his Indian wife. Think Achilles and Patroclus type grieving. His father kidnaps the sister of his sons dead wife from a travelling show, like you do, as a replacement for the dead woman, like you do, to assuage his grief and in the hope of snapping him out of his temporary insanity. Matters are complicated by the nasty spirit of the dead woman, and the cold hearted father and brother of the kidnapped woman, who attempt to track her down. It would be normal now for me now to say that things head to the inevitable confrontation, but that would be telling a big fat porky pie, as in fact it heads to an emphatic nothingness. The only good thing about the film is the setting in the Llano Estacado, or as it was named by the Spanish, the Staked Plains, because the land was so featureless that they drove in stakes along their early exploratory routes so that they did not get lost. The old ball of string trick on a bigger scale! But unfortunately the emptiness of the landscape simply becomes a metaphor for the hollowness of the film.
Phoenix gets no opportunity to act in his limited screen time. He merely contorts his face to the sky on a few occasions in an overt act of grief. Alan Bates wanders around in a bizarre outfit, looking as if he has escaped from the set of "Priscilla Queen of the Desert". His sqawking attempt at an Irish accent begins to grate after a while, and you will begin to wish that the Kiowa's will despatch him quickly to shut him up. No one could accuse Richard Harris of a poor Oirish accent, and he does in fact acquit himself quite well. The only cast member with the required gravitas to do so. The appearance of the ghost/spirit is also a little disconcerting. Are they dreaming her? Is she real or imaginary? Search me! What is that ending all about? If this is what revisionist westerns are all about then count me out. The film unsurprisingly disappeared at the box office, and has only recently been released to DVD. They really needn't have bothered. The film is better off being consigned back to the spirit world of rubbish films. Oh, and can someone please tell me what that weird frozen like stone man with the long nails was all about. Totally weird man, and totally awful. This is a pretty dire offering well worth avoiding. Heed the later reviewers who are telling it straight. Thank goodness they don't seem to make them like this any more, something we should truly be thankful for. A generous two stars, as it is a western and contains some nice scenery.