Weird Westerns: The Dark Tower (2017)
The big-screen adaption of Stephen King's magnum opus about a Western gunslinger in a fantasy wasteland, made by an entire group of people who seem like they thought the film was a chore they did not want to do.
By Max Sparber
"The Dark Tower," the decidedly unambitious film adaptation of Stephen King's sprawling, seven-plus novel magnum opus, hasn't been getting good reviews, and I am not going to surprise you with a good one.
The film isn't terrible, which in itself is a bit of a disappointment. A good onscreen disaster can be as fun as a well-made film. It is simply deeply mediocre, which is not surprising, as its first-listed producer and screenwriter is Akiva Goldsman, who may be the most mediocre talent working in Hollywood. He has some cachet thanks to an Oscar for his screenplay for "A Beautiful Mind," a film that managed to profoundly both misrepresent mathematician John Nash and misrepresent mental illness, ostensibly the subjects of the film.
But even if you have good feelings for that film, the remainder of his résumé is, well, spotty. He scripted the atrocious "Batman & Robin," was responsible for the forgettable "Lost in Space" film, wrote both "I, Robot" and "I am Legend" for Will Smith, and has been churning out the Da Vinci code films. He also produced the "Jonah Hex" film, so you can expect that I will complain about him elsewhere. Goldsman just never seems to have found a challenge he could rise to, and instead makes his projects small, manageable, competent, and dull.
"The Dark Tower" is, in its heart, a mash-up. It takes Clint Eastwood's Man Without a Name character and drops him into a fantasy setting. Author King then not only allowed horror to intrude into this story, but King's own horror: The books constantly interact with King's previous books, lifting its villain from his apocalyptic 1978 novel "The Stand." King himself even makes an appearance in one of the books, as himself.
Fans of the books love its wildness, its willingness to smash unexpected elements together. So, this being a Goldsman film, that's the first thing to go. Since this is a blog about Westerns, let me address that element first. The main character, Roland Deschain (played by a brooding Idris Elba), is still a gunslinger. He dresses in black, including a leather frock coat that feels vaguely Western by way of Hot Topic. He carries antique guns slung around his waist and wears a red bandana around his throat.
And that's about it. Director Nikolaj Arcel never tips his hat that he's even seen the Spaghetti Westerns that inspired the character; it's not clear that he's even seen a Western. Elba wanders through a Western wasteland that should feel like the blasted deserts of revisionist westerns and instead feels like the backdrop of a movie lazily set on another planet. There are scenes of heroic gunfighting, but they feel like they owe more to, say, "The Matrix" than any Western. There are no scenes of duelists standing opposite each other, with close shots of wary eyes. I don't believe the film even makes use of the American shot, a medium-long shot that is distinctive of the Western, because it is framed to make sure we see enough of the character to see their guns hanging down to their knees.
So fans of Westerns are going to be disappointed, but, as the critical reviews suggest, everybody is going to be disappointed. Matthew McConaughey, usually a reliably eccentric actor, plays the film's villain with his typical cocky insouciance, but he seems to be stressing the insouciance — he doesn't really seem to care about what's happening in the film. This is a role that McConaughey should feel comfortable hamming up, and instead he seems like he showed up, put on his slinky black costume, shrugged his way through a few scenes, and then went home.
As for the remainder of the cast: Well, there is Jake, a psychic boy, played English actor Tom Taylor, and Katheryn Winnick as his mother, a Canadian actress who grew up speaking Ukrainian, and, well, both seem to be spending the movie trying, and failing, to hide their accents. There are various locals in the Western desert world that the gunslinger inhabits, and, I kid you not, they seem to be wearing onscreen whatever they showed up with on the day of the shoot — this is a film that is even indifferent about what people in a fantasy setting might wear.
There are some fun little cameos from trusted character actors, like Jackie Earle Haley and Fran Kranz, but, when I say "fun," I mean that it is fun to see that they are in the movie, not that they are actually given anything fun to do.
I'd describe the plot of the film, which involves a sorcerer trying to destroy a dark tower that stands at the center of the universe and holds the whole thing together, but I literally just expressed more interest in the plot than the filmmakers do.
I don't know what happened with this film. Somebody stopped caring at some point and it infected everybody. The whole film has the feel of a chore that everybody involved just barely managed to complete because the fact of doing it was so tedious.
The trailers seemed, at the very least, to show Idris Elba loading his gun in novel ways, as though being a mystical gunslinger allows you to be preposterously creative in how you get bullets into your gun. The film, however, seems to have decided that this was too much of a job to reasonably ask, so there are even less novel gun loading scenes in the film than there are in the trailer.
Because who would want to see that?