Not Your Daddy’s Western
When I tell you that I was thoroughly riveted by Broken Trail, you need some context in which to understand this. This is a made-for-cable movie, and though once in a rare while the publicity machine for such a flick will host a press preview on a big screen, much more typically, getting the movie in front of critics involves sending out a DVD. And that was the case with Broken Trail. (The two-part, four-hour miniseries airs starting tonight at 8pm Eastern on AMC, rerunning tomorrow at 6pm before the debut of Part II at 8pm; it reruns in its entirety several times in July and, I would imagine, in perpetuity until; the end of the universe; check amctv.com for details.)
Unfair or not, that means that, as with any entertainment option that comes streaming into your living room and so has to fight for one’s attention with myriad potential distractions — from ringing phones to the bings of incoming emails to the cries for sustenance from starving pets/children/spouses, and so on — it frequently cannot command one’s entire attention. And if, as may also often be the case, the, ahem, totally hypothetical critic is half turned off by the prospect of yet another conventional, obvious, phoned-in made-for-cable movie, it may — may, I say — be easy to tell oneself something like, Well, I can at least crash through that horrendous pile of e-mails or fold the laundry or water the plants or get to some sundry chore while the movie plays in the background.
What housekeeping chore might I have gotten done while Broken Trail played? Not a single damn one. Because from the affecting opening moments of Part I to the just-a-wee-bit sentimental final curtain of Part II, I was hooked. Completely. Utterly. And totally unexpectedly. Westerns, the critic thinks: Bah. We’ve seen them all before. But not like this. This complete reinvigoration of the genre — from legendary Western filmmaker Walter Hill (whose more recent work has been unWestern stuff like Undisputed and Supernova), first-time screenwriter Alan Geoffrion, and star/producer and Western-movie icon Robert Duvall — strips away the clichés, curtails the nonsense, boils itself down to the bare rock of human drives for honor and honesty, cruelty and visciousness, survival and redemption. This is a story about people on a wild and all but lawless frontier pushed to discover the best in themselves… or to learn the hard truth that they are not cut out for this life.
And I do mean “people,” not “Anglo-esque white guys who speak only English.” This is the rare Western that acknowledges that the American West in 1890s, when Broken Trail takes place, was not populated merely with white men, the occasional whore with a heart of gold, and the rare Indian who managed to escape the North American holocaust. Part I opens — and this is how I got hooked — with five young Chinese women, one of them really still a girl, in San Francisco being sold into prostitution slavery by one of their own, a seemingly kindly Chinese grandma type. The heartless brutality of this scene, as the women are treated like livestock, reduced to their physical attributes and the untouched (or not) condition of their most private places, is but the first indication that this is not your Daddy’s Western. On the one hand, it’s not easy to watch, but on the other, it’s so removed from anything you might have expected that you can’t look away.
And then we meet rancher Print Ritter (Duvall: Kicking & Screaming, Secondhand Lions) and his nephew, Tom Harte (Thomas Haden Church: Over the Hedge, Sideways), who are embarking on an uneasy partnership as dealers in horseflesh. As they drive their new herd of 500 horses west to Wyoming, they cross paths with the Chinese women in the keep of the creepy Billy Fender (James Russo: Open Range, The Ninth Gate), who’s transporting them to some godforsaken mining town where they’ll be the toys of the horny miners, the very short-term employee of whorehouse mistress Big Rump Kate (Rusty Schwimmer: Runaway Jury, The Perfect Storm), who does not have a heart of gold.
Already, by this point, you’ve learned not to expect the expected from Broken Trail, but it’s only 45 minutes into a four-hour tale, and you can’t help but anticipate where things are gonna take us. And of course, you’ll be wrong, and it’s a delight to find oneself continually surprised — by the wonderful, unfussy minimalism of Church’s performance, when he’s delivered such equally wonderful caricatures in so many other shows and movies; by Duvall’s sweet gruffness; by the diverse and realistic portrayal of the Chinese women, from the smart and resolute Ghee Moon (Jadyn Wong) to the shy and kind Sun Foy (Gwendoline Yeo) to the troubled and edgy Ye Fung (Olivia Cheng); by, ironically, the casual visciousness of this movie, which does not prepare you for its outbursts violence and inhumanity.
Broken Trail is not a simple entertainment that wants to placate its audience with fantasies of the West or lies about the “freedom” and “independence” of corny, cartoonish cowboys. Which isn’t to say that it isn’t stupendously satisfying — it simply finds its pleasure in a new and more rewarding idea of the West, one about community and respect and the coming together of diverse people instead of the driving apart of them.