If you’ve seen Bone Tomahawk or The Hateful Eight you’d be forgiven for thinking the western was having some sort of resurgence.
If you’ve seen Bone Tomahawk or The Hateful Eight in recent months, you’d be forgiven for thinking the western was having some sort of resurgence. Diablo, then, is a refreshing bucket of cold water on such lofty optimism. It’s a western, sure, with a lot of facial stubble and horseback riding and gun fighters meticulously reloading revolvers, but if either of the two aforementioned films raised the bar for what a modern exercise in the genre was capable of, prepare to be brought back down to Earth.
Set seven years after the end of the Civil War, Diablo’s plot is simplistic to the point of abstraction, the kind of no-frills narrative better suited for a parody than a real exploration of the genre. Scott Eastwood plays Jackson, a comically bland ex-soldier hunting the Mexicans who kidnapped his wife. You know that’s the story because of the frequency with which he repeats this simple maxim to ancillary characters, unintentionally echoing Leonard Shelby’s vengeful mantra from Memento. Were this a straightforward revenge thriller, the film’s first half would be a frustrating one. There’s a banality to Jackson’s quest that feels like the rough draft of a stronger screenplay being filmed prematurely. His journey feels haphazard, as though every narrative turn were the result of a 12-sided dice roll rather than any real, thoughtful storytelling. Instead, it’s just semi-purposeful misdirection moonlighting as lazy dramaturgy.
There’s actually a massive, paradigm-shifting twist hidden in the film’s second act. Well, “hidden” might be generous. It’s about as obscured as a gift wrapped broom might be under a Christmas tree. The disturbing truth behind Jackson’s path paints a more complicated portrait than the film’s logline suggests, but it’s ultimately so poorly executed that you wonder why this film bothered to reach above its station in the first place.
The biggest thing holding Diablo back is its utter lack of grit. On paper, it should be a solid western. It’s got admirable performances from Walton Goggins and Danny Glover, both men who appear to have stepped out of the frame from other (altogether better) movies to slum it here for background color. It’s got an Actual Eastwood in the starring role, even if young Scott’s bored visage calls to mind the confused facial expressions of recently deceased Stone Temple Pilots frontman Scott Weiland before his father’s iconic countenance. The film even has a production quality that far exceeds the limitations of its narrative power. This last bit might be the biggest handicap, though. There’s some beautiful landscapes on display, but they look and feel more like screen savers or commercial sample photography than real settings. Like Scott Eastwood’s clean, flat facial features, the film taking place in a tourist brochure makes it near impossible to take seriously as a period piece.
Like any western, the film also has a spurious relationship with race, trying to prop its tale up on the dramatic implications of antebellum America, without having to actually explore the relationships between the war’s disparate survivors. There’s the obligatory scene of a Native American (played by Adam Beach) nursing Jackson back to health using smoke and herbs and shit. They even do peyote together in a tripping scene shot to look like a Kid CuDi music video. Glover’s character is a veteran of the war as well, but his inclusion seems to be that of a token, gravitas soaked black face, rather than an opportunity to say anything about interracial armadas during the war. The issue is you would never even ask such ambition of a movie this brazenly low stakes if it just stuck to the script and offered us a dude shooting through strangers to get his wife back. Director Lawrence Roeck’s baffling decision to hinge the entire movie around a tortuously ill-advised twist puts the film in a weight class it just isn’t capable of competing in. One would think calling the entire act of revenge into question and muddying the waters of Jackson’s intent could lead to a fascinating rumination on the nature of man and violence, but instead, we’re left with a weird portrayal of sexual manifest destiny, sadly anchored to the only coherent action scenes the movie musters. Why offer up The Searchers for millennials when Taken in the woods would suffice?