Twin filmmakers Logan and Noah Miller may not manage to reinvent the revisionist Western in Sweetwater -- a dusty revenge thriller featuring Ed Harris as one of the most eccentric sheriffs ever to tame the Old West -- but they are able to tweak its familiar themes just enough to keep things interesting. Hauntingly poetic in one scene and jarringly brutal in the next, the film uses comic-book characterization to straddle the line between art and pulp in a way that's respectful to its roots without being bound to them.
Miguel (Eduardo Noriega) and Sarah (January Jones) are just starting their lives together when a religious zealot known as Prophet Josiah (Jason Isaacs) sets his sights on their land. An evil man with a devoted flock, Josiah makes the fateful mistake of gunning down the governor's son-in-law after the weary young traveler and his slow-witted brother set up camp on the priest's land and eat one of his sheep. After Josiah also murders Miguel in a fit of religious fervor, the peculiar Sheriff Jackson (Ed Harris) arrives in town on the orders of the governor, who wants the quirky lawman to uncover the fate of his daughter's husband. Meanwhile, as Jackson uses his considerable detective skills to solve the case, Prophet Josiah grows frustrated by Sarah's fierce resistance to joining his flock. Later, all of the evidence collected by Jackson points to Josiah being the killer, and it's only a matter of time before the diabolical priest's sins come back to haunt him.
From the former prostitute seeking to start a new life to the malevolent preacher and the villainous banker, virtually all of the characters we encounter in Sweetwater seem to have galloped straight out of the cinematic Western mythos of the 20th century. The Miller brothers know their archetypes well and use that knowledge as a form of genre shorthand that makes background irrelevant. The moment we first glimpse Prophet Josiah we know he's a heartless killer, just like we know that Sarah is a good-hearted woman despite her sordid history and skill with a gun. Even Sheriff Jackson, with all of his oddities, plays a traditional role (the outsider) with a familiar purpose (acting as a bridge between two opposing forces). Yes, the Miller brothers obviously owe a debt of gratitude to Deadwood for its portrayal of the Wild West -- the profanity and flashes of perversity in the film offer proof positive of that -- but they draw just as much from the European Westerns of the '60s and '70s in order to establish an air of moral ambiguity that leaves us uncertain of just who will win in the end. Likewise, issues of racial discrimination, religious zealotry, and consolidation of power are folded into the plot in a way that may lack subtlety, but effectively raises questions that are still startlingly relevant today.
Although it's Jones' character who stands at the center of this violent tale, Harris and Isaacs steal the show as two opposing forces who are bound to clash from the moment Sheriff Jackson carves a map into Prophet Josiah's immaculate mahogany dinner table. Isaacs channels malevolence with the same intensity that Harris channels a hunger for justice and a willingness to do whatever it takes (including digging a bullet out of a dead man's stomach) to see that it's served. We know when Jackson interrupts an unctuous toast by Josiah during their first meeting that the sheriff is onto the Bible-toting tyrant, and the two actors play the tension between their characters with ruthless precision. Jones -- stoic to be kind, stone-faced to be critical -- is simply not in their league by comparison. Her misguided (or misdirected) lack of emotion robs her character of any true gravity, so that when she finally dons her pretty purple dress and embarks on a bullet-strewn revenge spree, the visceral thrill of the kill is somewhat blunted. For this reason in particular, it's difficult to claim that Sweetwater truly comes together in the end, despite the film's provocative final shot -- one that's as certain to infuriate the film's detractors as it is to fascinate its fans.