The Virginian (review)

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Where Have All the Cowboy Movies Gone?

I’ve got a soft spot for Bill Pullman. It’s probably just ‘cuz he’s my kind of cute, but… No, his career as an actor has followed an interestingly twisting path, from such improbable characters as the president of the United States in Independence Day and the Luke Skywalker/Han Solo parody Lone Star in Spaceballs to truly quirky and fascinating roles like the ersatz Sherlock Holmes in Zero Effect and the deliciously smarmy movie producer in The End of Violence.

So I really wanted to like The Virginian, the TNT Original movie that not only stars Pullman but serves as his directorial debut. Alas…
New Englander Molly Stark (Diane Lane: Murder at 1600) arrives in “big and lonesome” Wyoming Territory from civilization to work as a schoolteacher. The year is 1885, and the town of Medicine Bow is little more than a train depot and a saloon — the cattle ranch where Molly will be teaching is even deeper into the middle of nowhere. At the ranch, run by Judge Henry (Harris Yulin: The Hurricane, Cradle Will Rock), Molly, young and pretty, is immediately the object of desire of the ranch hands, including the piggish lout Trampas (Colm Feore: The Insider) and the man known only as the Virginian (Pullman). Charmingly arrogant, he’s a little too blunt for Molly’s refined sensibilities — he asks her to dance without benefit of a proper introduction, and when he later wonders whether she likes him, and she replies that she does, he gives her a boyish smirk and tells her, “I reckon you’re gonna love me before we get through.” But his gentle persistence pays off, and before long she’s turning him on to Shakespeare and passing the time of day with him.

Pullman miscast himself as the Virginian — he’s too contemporary to give the character the rough edges he should have. But the tentative romance that develops between the Virginian and Molly works, especially as it turns rocky when their very different cultures clash: she, a citified Easterner, can’t understand how an honest and honorable man like the Virginian can take the law into his own hands when necessary.

The horse opera half of the story — which is what pushes the Virginian into becoming judge, jury, and executioner — is where the film really falls flat. As the movie opens, the Judge is in the middle of a long-running dispute with neighboring rancher Balaam (Dennis Weaver) over unbranded cattle, valuable horses, and suspicions of cattle and horse rustling. As the feud escalates — two ranch hands turn up dead in what looks like accidents but probably aren’t — the Virginian is promoted to ranch foreman, which sends Trampas, who “could not abide” taking orders from the Virginian, over to the other side. The Virginian’s mettle is further tested when his friend and fellow ranch hand, Steve (John Savage: Message in a Bottle, The Deer Hunter), gets himself involved in dirty deeds.

The frustrating thing is, I could never quite figure out what was going on between the two ranchers: what the dispute was really about, why a dramatic exchange of some horses went sour, and what exactly Balaam, Trampas, and Steve had to do with the bad stuff that goes down. The narrative and the dialogue do get muddled in places, but the explanations for much of what happens in The Virginian just isn’t there to start with.

The script may be a mess, but to be fair to Pullman, it is nicely directed. It’s probably hard to shoot an ugly movie in gorgeous Big Sky country (Alberta stands in for Wyoming here), but vast locations like this can be greatly diminished on television. Pullman, though, eschews static shots of beautiful scenery and keeps his camera moving over his boundless outdoors settings, mounting cameras on helicopters for sweeping overhead perspectives on the Judge’s ranch and on tiny Medicine Bow, even swinging a camera on himself from eye level down toward the ground while shooting upward, capturing the landscape around him, to convey the Virginian’s larger-than-life poise that mirrors his physical world. With The Virginian, Pullman brings some widescreen feeling to small, square television, offering a bigger view than TV usually offers.

Just give the man a better script next time.

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