“Diablo” Burns…And Not Always In A Good Way.

Diablo stars Scott Eastwood as a dark take on certain characters played by his legendary father.  The man’s name is Jackson, and we eventually learn he was a veteran of the Civil War who served under General Sherman.  Why this is kept from us and slowly hinted at until all is revealed is beyond me.  I suppose Sherman’s burning of Atlanta is supposed to solidify Jackson’s “dark side” as we learn about it.  At any rate, Jackson asserts he was only following orders.  Is the film supposed to be another “War turns men into monsters” piece of garbage?  I hope not–and Danny Glover’s character, when we meet him, seems to imply otherwise.  But I’m just not sure…and that concerns me.

For much of the story, I was engaged.  It begins with an invocation of The Searchers, in a way.  Jackson suffers an attack where his ranch is burned to the ground one night by Mexicans, who steal away his wife.  He then rides from Colorado to New Mexico to stop them, and rescue her.

Soon he meets a mysterious stranger in black, played with delightful cruelty by Walton Goggins.  His name, according to the script, is Ezra–we never hear it in the movie.  Frankly, it might as well be Louis–as in “Louis Cypher”.  He shows up as a dark sort of guardian angel…who then taunts Jackson with the notion that “Ezra” knows more about our protagonist than the latter would care to admit to himself.  And he goes around killing people for some reason.  He says he likes it.  They get into a brawl, and Jackson takes one of his guns.  One can’t help but wonder if this is supposed to symbolize something:  Maybe, “Take up the weapons of the devil…and you will find yourself possessed.”

Sadly, this doesn’t seem to be quite the case, by the end.  But I’m getting ahead of myself.

There are nice set pieces, and a rather episodic journey for our protagonist.  We wonder exactly why Ezra is so connected, as it were, to Jackson.  We also wonder if this movie is a sort of Unforgiven: Jackson certainly seems traumatized by the memory of shooting his brother, as a “drug” sequence reveals.  Is it that, like Will Munny, he’s haunted by his past history of violence (and the reputation that comes from it), and fears being drawn back into it?

That’s how it looks…for most of it.  There’s a twist, however, and it sets everything on its head…and not necessarily in a good way.

At the risk of sounding clichéd, here’s the good, the bad, and the ugly:

Dean Cundey’s cinematography is excellent–one of the best elements of the movie.  There are sweeping shots of mountains; nice wide shots of Eastwood on horseback on a hill, with the sun behind him, staring toward us from the distance; and there are–interestingly–shots from on high looking straight down.  Experimental, perhaps…and disorienting.  That may be part of the point.

Timothy Williams’s music, alas, continues an all-too-common trend in modern-day oaters: Functional, and fits the mood…but it hardly invokes the great Western scores of yesteryear–with the exception of a nice sequence, immediately following Jackson’s first confrontation with Ezra/Louis, where our protagonist rides-boldly-rides.  There is also the occasional Morricone-esque whistle (including one that begins the movie…and got me anticipating more, alas, than what I got).  You sometimes hear a woodwind in the “Indian” sequence.  And the ending music has a “Spaghetti Western” element.  But aside from that, as is so often tragically the case, there is precious little about this score that invokes a Western, as opposed to just “thriller”.

Now, how about the acting?  Glover is excellent, in what amounts to an extended (yet meaningful) cameo.  Goggins, as I noted, is magnificent–stealing the movie every frame he’s in.  The supporting cast all does their part.

And Eastwood?  Well, it’s inevitable that he’d be compared to his father.  It would seem director Lawrence Roeck thus tried to have it both ways.  Oftentimes Scott is doing something of a Clint impression…and oftentimes, it seems, he’s been specifically told to do exactly the opposite.

To be honest, I actually think Scott invokes his father really well–he has the squint and the teeth-clench, and when he gives that classic half-whisper (to the delight of fans everywhere), it’s masterful.  Appearance-wise, he more-or-less resembles the old man in his Rawhide days.  Just with the beard.  Were his face to thin out, the resemblance would be almost disturbing.

The problem is when he seems asked to not be Clint.  There is a moment early on where Jackson, upon discovering  that the Indian shooting at him is a kid, shouts “WHAT ARE YOU DOING?!”–followed by his picking up the kid’s bow, pointing it at him, and loudly chiding, “That WASN’T very nice!”  One almost gets the idea that the lines were written for a Clint-like delivery of near-quiet amusement: A sigh, a bitterly amused, “What are you doing?” (“punk” not necessary, but implied)–pick up bow, point, a smirk and quick headshake with a click of the tongue: “Now, that–wasn’t very nice….”  Apparently Roeck didn’t get the memo–and we’re left to wonder what might have been….

Not that that excuses the screenwriter, Carlos de los Rios.  The dialogue is not nearly as good as it could have been.  For one thing, Jackson keeps saying his wife’s been “taken”.  Cue the jokes about Liam Neeson and whether Jackson has A Particular Set Of Skills.  Aside from that, there are lines that seem meant to be profound…but fall flat, as the lines are too bland, or too forced.  Eastwood, Glover, and especially Goggins do the best they can with it, but good delivery of bad lines, in the end, just highlights the real problem.

But it isn’t just the dialogue.  Far too often, actions made by certain characters just left me with questions I probably wasn’t meant to ask.  Motivations are often unclear.  An Indian tribe helps out Jackson at one point, only to get REALLY ticked off at the notion that Jackson would dare give them his rifle in thanks.  Apparently they hate using White Men’s guns with a passion.  Is this supposed to be another “Noble Savage” trope?  Because Native Americans were perfectly fine with using guns, in the real West and in the movies.  (I know: By the end, we’re supposed to question everything we’ve seen from Jackson’s perspective.  That still means an explanation would have been nice.)

And then there’s the twist.  It’s not that the twist is bad, per se–or even that it’s an amalgamation of famous movie twists so many of us are familiar with (though it kind of is).  The problem is how it’s handled, once it happens.  There’s no “once more with clarity” recaps of what we’ve seen before.  There’s no explanation of the plot holes the twist creates.  And worst of all…once the twist happens, Jackson’s characterization changes completely–for the worse.  Gone are all the nuances and traumas haunting him beforehand.  Gone is the struggle with his dark memories of a violent past.  Gone are all the sympathetic and likable elements that would’ve otherwise kept him tragic.  Sorry.  For the last act, he’s a completely different person–acting as if he’s completely accepted things, and ain’t ashamed of it.  And as if to insult our intelligence…he doesn’t even acknowledge it.

Why does this happen?  I suppose it was a creative choice to switch from Jackson’s perspective to something more “objective”.  This was the wrong choice, and brings a film that until this point had been actually enjoyable into something…irritating.  What makes Jackson so interesting and compelling as a character is his struggles.  We were promised a Man vs. Self conflict–coming to a head with the twist.  Cue the aftermath…and we are betrayed.  There’s no indication of any conflict, because we’re no longer seeing things through his perspective.  “That’s the point!”  I’m sure it was.  It’s also the wrong point.

Something else about the twist and its aftermath:  One moment, Jackson’s clashing with Ezra…the next moment, no clash–and no Ezra…who never comes back.  A better screenwriter would’ve kept him, and made him a dominant figure in the last act, goading Jackson on and “guiding” him as the latter struggles with the darker side of his nature.  And a better director would have seen to it.

But much as we’d love to speculate on “what might have been”…the movie has the writer and director it has.  And for all the promise of a great film, what we have in the end is a beautiful-looking mess.  The promise is abandoned in the last act, and we’re in a completely different movie.  Diablo, and the Young Mr. Eastwood, deserve better.

Movie Grade: C+

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