IMDB YEAR RELEASED:
Kurt Russell, Patrick Wilson, Matthew Fox, Richard Jenkins, Lili Simmons, Evan Jonigkeit, David Arquette, and Sid Haig.
S. Craig Zahler
The sheriff of a small Western town called Bright Hope feels compelled to lead a small posse into desolate, poorly traveled lands in pursuit of an indigenous cave-dwelling tribe that abducted three of the villagers.
The story begins with two ne’er-do-wells rummaging through the pockets of dead people that are the unfortunate victims of the two. When they hear approaching horses, they flee, and find themselves amidst a Native American burial ground. One of them is killed by off-camera killers, and we don’t know what happens to the other until several days later, when he appears on the outskirts of the town of Bright Hope. He is burying loot.
Chicory, the Backup Deputy (Richard Jenkins) sees the questionable activity and reports it to Sheriff Hunt (Kurt Russell). Sheriff Hunt confronts the ne’er-do-well (David Arquette) in the saloon. There’s a scuffle and the Sheriff shoots the suspect in the leg.
The Sheriff tells John Brooder (Matthew Fox), one of the town residents, who was drinking in the saloon to go fetch the doctor. Seeing as how the doctor is drunk, Brooder decides to call on the doctor’s assistant, Samantha O’Dwyer (Lili Simmons) who is home with her husband, Arthur O’Dwyer (Patrick Wilson). Arthur has a broken leg.
Brooder escorts Samantha to the jail where she begins to treat the wound. Because it will take some time to treat the wound, Samantha communicates that she will be spending the night at the jail to treat, and observe her patient. Hunt leaves Samantha with Nick, his Main Deputy (Evan Jonigkeit) as everyone returns home to sleep.
During the course of the night, a stable-hand had been murdered and the Sheriff is called to investigate. At the jail, they find that the injured ne’er-do-well, Samantha, and Nick are gone. A sole arrow is left behind. When a Native American called the Professor (Zahn McClarnon) is shown the arrow, he tells the Sheriff that the arrow belongs to a cave-dwelling tribe of savages that live in the “Valley of the Starving Men.”
In preparation to pursue the kidnappers, the Sheriff asks Brooder to come along, and Chicory volunteers, despite Hunt telling him that he is needed in town. Chicory feels that the Sheriff and Brooder are too few to go in pursuit of what could amount to a tribe of villains. The Sheriff relents, and allows him to come along. Arthur O’Dwyer, despite his broken leg, has decided to tag along as well. With a posse of four, they enter the desolate lands that are rarely traversed by the townsfolk.
Over the course of their trip, at one of their rest stops, they meet up with two men who ask to share the camp. Brooder, fearing their ill intent, guns them down. He believes they are part of a gang of Mexican desperadoes. Apparently, he is correct, because despite moving to a different location overnight, their horses have been stolen. Brooder’s horse was injured during the attempted theft, and Brooder must put his horse down.
Because they no longer have horses, they must travel on foot to the Valley of the Starving Men, which is exceptionally difficult for O’Dwyer who has a broken leg. Eventually they must leave him behind, in the hopes that he can get to the valley at his own deliberate pace. The three other members of the posse leave O’Dwyer behind, believing that they may never see him again. What they find in the valley is horrifying, gruesome, and upsetting, but I will say no more about the plot.
So far what has been communicated is a fairly standard Western plot. The characters are strong. Sheriff Hunt feels compelled to go after the kidnappers because he left Samantha to tend to his prisoner. He shot the prisoner. He left her with Nick at the jail. He is therefore responsible for getting Samantha back. For him, it is an inarguable tautology.
John Brooder is a successful gunman. Even though he is a nattily dressed man, there is something serious in his carriage that belies the outward appearance. He tells the group that he will lead because he is better at tracking, camping, killing. They concede because they know it’s true. Chicory is loyal to the Sheriff. He kowtows to the Sheriff with such servile behavior that it almost borders on sycophantic. Yet, there is honor to this man’s bearing, a pride that comes from wearing a badge.
Arthur O’Dwyer is a man with drive. Of all the men in the posse, he is determined to bear his weight, regardless of his impediment. He adores his wife, and when he was informed of her kidnapping, he couldn’t visualize a posse without his presence. The relationships of all these characters (and some that I haven’t mentioned) is a clear strength of the narrative.
The cinematography in many Westerns is usually awesome. This is no different. The location scouting was top-notch. The vistas were a little more claustrophobic by design, since they were traveling through a valley. The director framed his shots purposefully. The set design and costuming was great. This movie was gorgeous even in the parts where it’s supposed to be gritty and dirty. I believed I was in the Wild West.
Again, pretty standard Western plot until the heroes get to the caves, and are confronted with the physically imposing indigenous people that are called troglodytes. We find out that the evil is the result of the grave robbing done by the ne’er-do-wells at the inception of the movie. It’s a classic horror movie trope that the evil is unleashed when dumb people do dumb things.
The savages are discolored, as if cave-dwelling and rolling around in the desert has bled them of all color. They have engaged in body modification that has altered their physical features into monstrous facsimiles. The creature design is spectacular, and when you see the weapons they wield, you’re going to say, “Wow!”
This is a Western, but it is also a horror movie. The violence is sudden and almost unexpected. When it occurs, the gore underscores the severity of the violence by being overt, but not parodic as so many slasher movies tend to verge. There is one particular cave scene that may turn the strongest of stomachs. I loved it, because it wasn’t gratuitous. There had been nothing like this scene throughout the movie, but is necessary to demonstrate the blatant threat that the cave dwellers embody.
Thematically, I just want to briefly mention the entry into the valley of death metaphor. The burial site that was violated by the ne’er-do-wells figures prominently in the story. The violators receive their comeuppance fairly early in the story, but their deaths are insufficient to quell the rage that seems to burn inside of the troglodytes. Our heroes must enter the valley of death in order to satiate the ghosts that these savages represent.
Don’t get me wrong, this movie is not a supernatural horror film. The “monsters” are not ghosts. They are a tribe of cave-dwelling Native Americans that are physically imposing, but naturally occurring. As a fan of horror, this movie works. As a fan of Westerns, I think it works even better.