Tangled in a creative limbo even more troublesome than its title suggests, “South of Heaven, West of Hell” is a quasi-metaphysical revenge Western that remains as elusive as a distant mirage on a long, dusty trail. The movie equivalent of the stranger who overstays his welcome in town, this tyro filmmaking effort by country superstar Dwight Yoakam lacks the critical ingredients of shape, consistent tone, rhythm and economy that would make this truly old-fashioned oater into a lean, compelling adventure. Pic marks at best an exercise by Yoakam, whose attempt to revive the Western will be ignored at the holiday B.O.
The idea of a crazy coot firing shots at a movie screen showing “The Great Train Robbery” probably seemed like a great way to launch a Western set in the early 1900s, but the lack of intended absurd and ironic effect due to botched editing and staging is emblematic of the film’s problems. Pic borrows bits from “Butch Cassidy” (anachronistic soundtrack), “Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid” (male rituals in widescreen), “Rio Bravo” (chatty exchanges by vastly outnumbered good guys) and “El Topo” (half-baked surrealism) without enlivening them.
As sheriff of Los Tragos in the Arizona Territory, Valentine (Yoakam) has bigger headaches than an angry movie patron, since the nefarious Henry family has rolled into town, led by patriarch Leland (Luke Askew), whose verbosity is backed up by violent sons Taylor (Vince Vaughn) and Arvid (Paul Reubens). Though raised by Leland as a foster child, Valentine left the clan behind him long ago — but it takes the rest of the movie to get them off his back.
Armed with a Gatling gun and his gun-slinging kin, Leland robs the town’s bank one night, hopelessly outnumbering Valentine.
Just as pic builds up steam, it shifts forward to 1908 and the Arizona border town of Dunfries, where a government agent with a bad tooth (Bud Cort) tries to interview prison convict Nogales (Joe Unger) about Valentine, who appears to have died in Cuba during the Spanish-American War.
Even this most basic chain in the narrative is played out for awkward comedy and grizzled genre excess, in the apparent hope of mimicking Sergio Leone’s hard-bitten absurdism.
Further muddying the waters is the entrance of actress Adalyne (Bridget Fonda) on the arm of the mysterious Brigadier Smalls (Billy Bob Thornton). While Adalyne’s needs are simple — pick up her deaf daughter from Uncle Angus (Bo Hopkins) — Smalls is a human puzzle, oddly implying in one of the script’s numerous overwritten passages, that he, like Valentine, may actually be dead.
As director, Yoakam means to serve up visual contrasts between Valentine and Adalyne’s blossoming romance and a series of escalating, vicious killings. But there’s no grace to the interplay of images and emotions. At every step, the filmmakers seem unable to pull off an exaggerated horse opera, and they never know when to pull the plug on scenes that are going nowhere.
If Yoakam’s slightly zombified expressions are meant to indicate that Valentine is dead (like Lee Marvin’s Walker in “Point Blank”), who cares? The singing star is still learning how to act, despite a promising turn in Thornton’s “Sling Blade.”
He surrounds himself with thesps galore here, but doesn’t know what to do with them.
The result is overacting worthy of a rickety traveling show, from Reubens and Vaughn (whose bad-guy act is growing tired) to Michael Jeter, Hopkins and Cort, all of whom are reduced to protracted bouts of yelping and screaming.
Fonda’s subdued, shaded manner seems to have appeared from a different movie, and it’s fun to see her interact with real-life beau Yoakam and father Peter, who briefly appears as a Buffalo Bill type. Thornton, decked out in a goofy long blond wig and delivering his ridiculous lines in purest deadpan, shows every sign of doing the part as a favor for pal Yoakam.
James Glennon’s ‘Scope lensing overworks the color desaturation to the point where pic’s look is dusty-dull. Because the film’s more mystical and symbolic angles are so out of focus, it is never clear whether the fake look of the semi-deserted Western town sets is intentional or a matter of budget.