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Intimate story on a sweeping canvas,
This review is from: Broken Trail [DVD] (DVD)
Robert Duvall rounds off his Western trilogy (Lonesome Dove, Open Range) in much the same way he started it... laidback on the outside and full of homespun wisdom, (Don't measure your wealth by how much money you have, son) but tough as nails when you get him riled. However, Broken Trail should not be considered as an also-ran, coasting in the coattails of its obvious and considerable predecessor. It certainly does owe much to Lonesome Dove, as the two men seek to herd 500 horses across the country to earn enough money to own their own land, all the while learning more about themselves and each other along the way. However, this certainly has enough of its own style with Walter Hill back on great form (welcome back, Walter, it's been a while...), and the two leads Duvall and Thomas Hayden Church simply outstanding, to make this solid, entertaining, educational and moving in it's own right.
The twist in this movie, is that along the way, they take in 5 innocent but abused Chinese women who have been at the mercy of a low life trafficker (yes, it's actually a chattel drive), thus reflecting the actual historical problem of the time, whereby Chinese daughters were sold into slavery and prostitution in the US. Their new wards bring the two upright but gritty men into contact with horse thieves, gunslingers, brothel keepers and even the proverbial hooker with a heart of gold as their horse drive becomes altogether more dangerous and eventful than they had anticipated. And yet, while including all these mores of the genre the movie has such an intenseness and realism, that the characters never feel like story conveniences or clichés. Hill directed the pilot episode of Deadwood, which shows here in the gritty style, the unflinching look at the griminess and harshness of the time, and the harshness of the language, and yes, even the sparseness of the scenery. The violence is not dwelt on however - indeed, in many cases the coup de grāce is delivered off screen, and by the end of the movie you have actually seen a lot less violence than you might expect. In fact, the very sparseness of the script and the corollary of this seen in the seemingly endless fields, with breathtaking mountains of the Rockies in the background (it was shot in Canada) and often photographed through a snowy haze as the cowboys hunker down for the long slog, actually make the movie all the more memorable and yes, beautiful in its own way.
Bleak and harsh, and yet full of warmth and humanity, and a story where people matter in an era when there was plenty of hard times and hard people to dehumanize life, make this a quietly enthralling movie, full of unexpected moments. Criticized by some for its running time, I reveled in the leisurely pace which allowed time to relish the scenery and enjoy the pauses in the conversation. Highly recommended: it's easy to see why it won all the Emmys.