A super el-cheapo budget ($7,000) goes surprisingly far, at least production value-wise, in Jon Jacobs’ and Michael Kastenbaum’s Western noir “The Wooden Gun.” But this largely uninvolving indie (which was shot several years back, but is premiering now as part of a retrospective of Jacobs’ work) is less proof that a competent feature can be made on a shoestring than it is proof of the value of a good script. Ultimately, pic suffers from its behind-the-scenes being more interesting than its actual scenes.
Desert-lensed pic — which includes scenes shot at the Willow Creek Ranch in Kaycee, Wyo., that was once a hideout of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid — stars co-directors Jacobs and Kastenbaum as, respectively, embittered gunslinger Jake Finney and a two-bit horse thief Steve West. Both have been captured by a wily sheriff (Stephen Polk) and are being towed slowly toward their place of execution. Title refers to an impressive piece whittled by Finney, which he subsequently uses to stage a daring escape. West bribes Finney into rescuing him too, and together they head for a mythical Canadian border that always seems just out of reach.
“The Wooden Gun” doesn’t have a consistent tone in its shapeless body — partly cribbing the existential yearnings of Monte Hellman’s Roger Corman Westerns, partly evoking the slavish reverence for the “lost” Western ideal that has permeated nearly every modern Western film, and mostly relying on a great deal of self-referential humor to carry the day. (Finney refers to himself in the third person and sometimes narrates his own action.) But pic’s very unpredictability, its rallying refusal to fit its scenes into a preordained Hollywood pattern, is enjoyably quirky, although not often enough.
Jacobs is a natural on horseback and he does a great deal in his performance to turn Finney into an iconic representation of the romantic gunslinger of Western yore. Likewise, he and Kastenbaum have an eye for desert locales and for cowboys, tumbleweeds and other figures against a barren landscape that belies their minimal resources. But Jacobs’ screenplay is fatally flawed, failing to provide any really compelling circumstances for the Finney character and giving such short shrift to all the secondary characters that they are defined only in superficial, one-dimension terms.