Friday December 15, 2000
Dwight Yoakam displays a genuine depth of feeling for the Old West, only to cancel it out with self-indulgence.
Overlong, overwritten--by Yoakam and Stan Bertheaud--it boasts a formidable roster of actors to whom Yoakam all too often lets loose, leaving an awful lot of chewed scenery in their wake. Alas, "South of Heaven" plays like half-baked Peckinpah.
Not surprisingly, Yoakam has composed a beautiful, elegiac score, a perfect complement to James Glennon's evocative camera work. However, again and again, the film progresses with image, pace and music in graceful, rhythmic sync only to come to a grinding halt to enable the actors to emote their hearts out, and then cranks up again until it finally comes to an end--after a total of 2 hours and 7 minutes.
It seems that Yoakam fell in love with his actors, their characters and their dialogue. It's a lapse at once understandable--and deadly.
Ironically, Yoakam has done well for himself. He plays Valentine Casey, marshal of the tiny New Mexico town of Los Tragos, who seems to spend more time being the object of seductive women than tracking down bad guys. But on Christmas Eve, 1907, that changes drastically, when the town is invaded by the large and vicious Henry Gang, headed by its fiery Bible-banging patriarch Leland Henry (Luke Askew), who also happens to be the orphaned Valentine's estranged foster father.
After Henry and his henchmen--his trigger-happy son (Vince Vaughn) and an assortment of dastardly varmints (Paul Reubens, Michael Jeter, etc.)--arrive, Val retreats to the Arizona desert to break wild horses.
Just as Val comes to the even tinier town of Dunfries to sell his horses to the local blacksmith (Bo Hopkins), the blacksmith's beautiful niece (Bridget Fonda), who has become an actress, returns home on her way to San Francisco. And of course the horrible Henrys are about to descend upon Dunfries just as they did upon Los Tragos.
Will Val take off to the coast with Fonda's Adalyne or this time stand his ground and see that vengeance--"justice" is his word--is done? Is there any doubt?
At heart "South of Heaven" is a classic "a-man's-gotta-do-what-he's-gotta-do" tale, and there's nothing wrong with that. In fact, there's nothing wrong with the film's basic premise, but the story is in dire need of the economy that Yoakam brought to his playing of a terrifying abusive man in Billy Bob Thornton's "Sling Blade."
Thornton is one of many familiar people who pop up in this picture. Wearing a long blond wig, he plays an effete and grandiloquent military man, who with his near-mute associate (Warren Zevon) is Adalyne's traveling companion. Matt Clark is Adalyne's hotel-keeper father, a crazed alcoholic; Scott Wilson is Val's ill-fated deputy; and Peter Fonda is a Buffalo Bill-like showman, a comrade of Val's in the Spanish-American War, who turns up in Dunfries just before all hell breaks loose.
Along with Yoakam, Fonda, playing a woman who's had to overcome a troubled past, and Bud Cort, hilarious as a hapless government agent, fare best, primarily because their parts have a succinctness otherwise almost totally lacking in the other key roles.
South of Heaven, West of Hell, 2000. R, for strong violence, language and some sensuality. A Phaedra Cinema release in association with Delta Deuce Films, Goldmount Pictures and Trimark Pictures. Director Dwight Yoakam. Producers Gray Frederickson and Darris Hatch. Executive producer Buck Owens. Screenplay by Yoakam and Stan Bertheaud; from a story by Yoakam, Dennis Hackin and Otto Felix. Cinematographer James Glennon. Editor Robert Ferretti. Music Dwight Yoakam. Costumes Le Dawson. Production designer Siobhan Roome. Running time:2 hours, 7 minutes. Dwight Yoakam as Valentine Casey. Bridget Fonda as Adalyne Dunfries. Bud Cort as Agent Otts. Luke Askew as Leland Henry.