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All the Pretty Pictures

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Once upon a time, the mythical West was where some of the best American filmmaking was found. Classics like Stagecoach, My Darling Clementine, Red River, and The Searchers evoked the taming of the frontier, playing on the national legend of how the West was won. These movies felt authentic. Maybe it was because they were filmed at a time when the country was closer to its “frontier” past. Many of the actors doing the ridin’ and ropin’ on screen had actually done those things in real life (okay, maybe not Iowa homeboy John Wayne) and looked like they belonged. In the earliest Hollywood versions of Custer’s Last Stand, some of the Sioux and Cheyenne extras who closed in on the golden-locked General and his doomed 7th Cavalry comrades on screen had actually been around for the real deal in 1876.

Growing up in the non-spacious suburbs of New Jersey, all I knew of the West came from watching those old westerns on television. When I finally went west myself, hitchhiking out in my early twenties, I remember reaching Colorado and seeing what I thought were clouds, white fluffy clouds, way off in the distance, way above me. I didn’t have a clue that they were the front range of the Rockies, and I stared at them for a long time after I realized they were mountains. I couldn’t conceive of anything being that big. I took lots of photographs as I traveled in those months–of mountains, wide vistas, space. But none of them conveyed the enormity, the inherent drama of the West that I’d felt. They were picture postcard views that just lay there, flat and lifeless.

Years later, while I was working on a movie about the Battle of the Little Bighorn, filming the similarly empty spaces of Montana, my cameraman taught me that to get the emotion I’d missed in those first photographs, you had to film those spaces in such a way that there was actually something going on in the picture: tall range grasses swaying in the wind, clouds moving across a sky, the light changing, the camera’s point of view shifting from one shot to another. You did this to make a point, to reinforce the story being told. Without that dynamic, you’d be left with just a bunch of pretty pictures.

Therein lies the problem of All the Pretty Horses, Billy Bob Thornton’s film rendition of the National Book Award-winning novel by Cormac McCarthy. McCarthy’s tale of two Texas teenagers adventuring in Mexico in search of a fast fading old West looks almost right. It’s filled with respectably good actors trying their best. Most of the dialogue is straight from the pen of McCarthy. But there’s a dynamic missing that leaves the film strangely flat and ultimately unsatisfying.

Please understand that as a fan of the famously reclusive novelist (who currently lives in El Paso–check out the short, very funny documentary Cormac’s Trash, for a view of that city’s cult of McCarthy), I was looking forward to this film. I had come across McCarthy’s book Blood Meridian in the 1980s and had been bowled over by the seemingly endless run-on sentences that flowed like waterfalls and the mayhem he depicted in his character’s epic journey across Texas, the surrealist terrible vision of the Southwest. It seemed as if someone, if not an entire Indian village or wagon train, died horribly and in great detail on almost every single page. It was violent and crazy and beautifully written.

A few years later, I had a chance meeting with the author himself, of all places on a golf course at a western North Carolina resort. We were all there at the annual meeting of an obscure Tennessee foundation that gave out MacArthur-type genius grants. McCarthy was one of the honored winners. I was somebody’s date.

I’d heard McCarthy was there, and I’d been warned not talk to him about his books, told that he hated anyone who brought up the subject. And now here he was, on the first tee, dressed in lime green country club pants, knit shirt, and alligatorish golf shoes, waiting for me to drag my rented clubs onto his cart.

Our round did not go very well. I kept staring at him, anticipating the amazing literary conversation that might start at any moment. Cormac focused entirely on his shots, though, and he was very good. I hadn’t played golf in years, and I was very bad, topping shot after shot into the woods, sand traps, and every nearby lake and stream. McCarthy, who seemed tightly wound to begin with, wasn’t happy with me. And my feeling was that if I even mentioned Blood Meridian, he might wrap a club around my neck, leaving me on the ground like so many of the deceased in his book. I gave up playing midway through the round, to avoid any potential violence.

Even though I initially found All the Pretty Horses tame as a novel, a kind of Cormac-lite, I liked the writing and I was curious to see what Billy Bob Thornton (of Sling Blade fame) would make of it. What he made was a two-hour film that follows a classic American path. Two laconic Texas cowboy teens flee the confines of a West in decline–Grandpa is dead, Mom has dumped Dad and sold the ranch (to become an actress in San Antonio!), and heck, no one is really a cowboy anymore–a Larry McMurtryish Texas. They ride off on a long journey into old Mexico, where they find adventure, wild horses, forbidden romance, and danger. Then, after some hard knocks, they realize some semblance of the hard “truth.”

The hill and range country outside of San Antonio, where the picture was filmed in large part, has never looked better. Matt Damon (whom I actually bought as a Texan here) and Henry Thomas are fine as John Grady Cole and Lacey Rawlins, the Texas teen buddies. Penelope Cruz looks great as Alejandra, the forbidden Mexican love interest, and Lucas Black, as the badass, nutty little Jimmy Blevins, steals every scene he’s in. There’s even an aged, white-haired Bruce Dern as a wise old Texas judge. And the film is mostly true to McCarthy’s book. But the film is not particularly memorable.

There’s a lack of dramatic tension throughout the film. Things just happen, one after another. For instance, the boys’ supposedly long journey from Texas feels like a short weekend ride into the Hill Country. They leave San Angelo on horseback, and almost immediately they’re crossing the Rio Grande. After a stop to get drunk, sleep through a rain storm, and steal back a horse that has been stolen from one of them, which all goes by in quick and fairly detail-free succession, they’re supposedly deep inside Mexico at the ranch of their dreams. There’s no feeling of covering a lot of ground, as in the chase scenes of The Wild Bunch, or the criss-crossing of deserts, mountains, and plains, as in The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly. You don’t feel the effort or the distance.

Much of the lack of narrative tension may stem from the fact that director Thornton was reportedly forced by his studio to edit the film down from its initial length of more than four hours. This would explain the choppiness of the story. Things happen too fast–we are not prepared for them and so they have little or no emotional impact. The boys get thrown into prison, where the conditions are horrible (though Damon continues to look perfectly well-dressed and in good health, with just a dab or two of dirt makeup applied to his face to register distress), and then Damon finds himself in a knife fight to the death. Who is the guy attacking him? Why is he attacking him? In the scene just before that one, Damon’s buddy has been attacked, but I for one did not understand if he’d been knifed or just hit silly or what or why? It’s obvious that scenes have been cut, and that the cutting of them harmed the continuity and pacing of the film.

Likewise, the romance between Damon and Cruz doesn’t really register. They see each other one day, they barely talk the next day, then she meets him at a ranch dance where she tells him she dreamt of him, and then there she is at his bedroom door. This is Mexico, circa 1949, and I just didn’t buy it. Again, the detail of the book hasn’t registered in the film version. And the forbidden love that both supposedly will never forget is, in the end, kind of forgettable.

Maybe this is also a problem of genre–and a lack of fit between McCarthy’s kind of narrative to a film format. The old westerns had plenty of action and the plots were usually quite simple. Good guys in white hats, bad guys in black.

Even in the more complicated West of modern Hollywood–from the broad canvas of Little Big Man to the claustrophobic, dreary frontier town in Robert Altman’s McCabe and Mrs. Miller, to Jim Jarmusch’s wonderfully bizarre Dead Man, to Clint Eastwood’s anti-western Unforgiven–there are plenty of chases and violence that ratchet up the filmic tension. In comparison, not much really happens in All the Pretty Horses. And it never feels as if much is at stake. Damon’s character may break a lot of wild horses, but no matter how beautiful the sequence looks, it doesn’t pack the punch of a gunfight at the O.K. Corral. Besides, suddenly we’re stuck watching The Horse Whisperer!

The beauty of McCarthy’s novel is in the writerly detail. The way the sky looked, the way the cold of the dawn felt, the heat of a horse’s body, the feeling of loneliness riding under a big, unforgiving sky. Yes, the Cormac of All the Pretty Horses is a kinder, gentler guy than the author of Blood Meridian. But in a funny way, his characters are not as fleshed out as his descriptions of the landscape they pass through. As a matter of fact, only Alejandra’s aunt really made a lasting impression on me, especially her story of lost love during the Mexican Revolution–but she’s almost entirely cut out of the film.

No, what we’re left with is a story where the characters aren’t so memorable, and a narrative that works on the page but just doesn’t quite live up to what’s needed for a good film. And it doesn’t help that a film that was obviously shot and structured as a longer epic has been cut down so much.

There is a Cormac McCarthy novel that might be better fodder for a movie. Moreover, Tommy Lee Jones is said to be bent on making a film out of it someday. Blood Meridian has got great characters, plenty of action, and about as much tension as any audience could stand. And I’m guessing that that film would turn out to be more than a lot of pretty pictures.

Paul Stekler, whose last film was George Wallace: Settin’ the Woods on Fire, teaches at the University of Texas. He has been working on his golf game, in hopes of one day playing another round with Cormac.