Weird Western: Kill or Be Killed (2015)

I liked "Kill or Be Killed," an independent weird Western filmed across Texas and released in 2015, and I am going to talk about what I liked about the film. But first I feel like I need to offer a caveat: There are a lot of elements to the film that are, how shall I say this, not well crafted, and I should let people know about that up front. If you are liable to be irritated by such things, well, this film will irritate you.

I used to do a lot of theater in Omaha, and Omaha was what I called a "four actors and you're out" town. By that, I mean that a locally produced play could find four good actors for anything they were producing, but only four, and if a play had a fifth character, that actor would be the worst thing you have ever seen onstage.

"Kill or Be Killed" suffers the same problem. The main cast is mostly competent and generally enjoyable to watch, but every additional performer offers line readings that sound like somebody impersonating the way professional athletes used to talk in commercials.

It does not help that they are given impossible dialogue. There is an art to writing dialogue for a Western. It must feel steeped in the language of another era without getting lost in it. When archaic language is used artlessly, it's called gadzookery (of, even more delightfully, tushery.)

If you've got the poetry, an entire story can be told in dialect and be charming (see the Coen Brothers' version of "True Grit" as an example). This script lacks the poetry, though. I'm not going to go back and rewatch it for examples, so I'll invent an example, and I'm making fun of the film, but make no mistake, this is pretty close to how the film sounds:

Desperado one: I ain't seen pa since he went fobbing down at the crick.
Desperado two: Do you reckon his stilts tumbled out from under him and and he filt his airsacks with the muddy stuff?

That being said, this sort of gadzookery is entertaining to listen to even when not well done. And if I had to provide a critical quote for this film, one they could put across their poster, it would be that: "entertaining even when not well done." I know it's not ideal as a quote, but the truth is I value interesting over good, and this film is always interesting even when it is not good.

The story tells of a group of desperadoes who bust out of a Texas chain gang and head across Texas to recover some loot buried at the bottom of a well that is right on the beach at Galveston, so we can safely presume that somebody wanted a salt-water well for some reason. The gang is full of the sort of florid characters you expect from a Western film, and the movie gets this right.

There is co-writer/co-director Justin Meeks as the irritable head of the gang, who mostly seems irritated that he's been saddled with an embarrassing name: "Sweet Tooth." One of the terrible secondary actors will later explain that he has a taste for taffy, although we never see it, which seems like a missed opportunity, although a Mexican later calls him "dulce diente," which he decides he likes the sound of. (I feel a little bad about pointing out that the actual Spanish for sweet tooth is "goloso," and that "el Goloso" would be a pretty great name for an outlaw, especially as it also means "greedy.)

His gang includes one of those gurning simpletons who spends the entire film shouting excitably, a laconic giant given to assaulting children, a freed slave with both the costume and the mannerisms of a witch doctor, and a boy ventriloquist. The boy is a terrible ventriloquist and the gang actually murders his dummy early on, which also seems like a wasted opportunity. This is the second weird Western I have seen with an underused ventriloquist dummy (the first being "Riders of the Whistling Skull"), and it's enough to make a man despair.

The film has one terrific plot point: Early on the gang stays at a farm house where the farmer has a habit of drugging and offing his guests, which was an actual phenomenon in early America. As an example, there was Lavinia Fisher's Six Mile Wayfarer House, where she and her husband killed strangers with poisoned tea.

The idea of putting a group of violent desperadoes in the Wayfarer House is delicious, although it is slightly underused here: Sweet Tooth quickly figures out his predicament and shoots the owner. Still, it is a decision that will haunt the group for the rest of the movie, as, from that point on, something follows them in the night, occasionally murdering someone in his sleep without making a noise or leaving a trace.

There is a reveal at the end, at the salt water well, and it's a bit confusing, because it relies not only on remembering a character from the house that we previously met for a fraction of a second, but also relies on us being shocked that he has a twin brother. I managed to remember the character, but failed to be shocked that there was a twin, but that may be my own fault: I am seldom shocked by twins.

Still, even if it's narratively unsatisfying, it's visually enjoyable, a sort of Edward Gorey on the Gulf Coast, which describes a lot of the film (horror icon Michael Berryman even shows up at one point in country doctor duds to cut a man's leg off, and is a joy).

And I will say one last thing about the film, and it's an aspect that is genuinely terrific: One of the features of English folk horror movies is that they have a real sense of the strangeness of the English countryside, and spend a lot of time communicating that visually. This film has a similar sense about the strangeness of the Texas landscape, and manages to use the landscape to frame the story it tells.

This isn't easy to do, and is welcome here, as a lot of Western films are set in Texas but filmed elsewhere. This film really looks like Texas, and the filmmakers know that this fact is their biggest star, because, framed right, Texas is god damned weird looking.

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