Call this a western exploitation film. Jonah Hex, based on a comic book series of the same name, has much more action than thought or sense. It borrows from the western with little understanding of the genre, which is, perhaps, a moot point. To much of the target audience, the genre is a haze of dust. They’d see no difference in the Duke and Clint. As a professor of genre cinema at Rutgers-Camden, I’ll be teaching the western for the first time next spring. I’ll spend equal time on the classic mythos as I will on the late-60 revisions, since many of my recent students see it all as ancient history. (Recent entries, like Mangold’s 3:10 to Yuma, are action films.) Knowing this is the best way to appreciate films that look to the unsettled American frontier. And knowing this reveals Jonah Hex‘s limits.
The film fashions an a ruthless avenger in its prologue. Having lost it all – i.e. his family burned to death as he’s made to watch – Hex is after the man who killed them: the megalomaniac Quentin Turnbull (John Malkovich, working comfortably within his range). A bounty hunter returning to his job, Hex is played by Josh Brolin, the new American renegade. After scoring as the (wanna-be) man-of-action Llewelyn Moss in No Country for Old Men, Brolin has showed up as cops (bent or just brutish) or criminals in various films. His deep menace – seemingly a by-default expression for the actor – is matched with vocal threat. He’s become integral to the new varieties of the crime film.
In Hex, the actor’s countenance veers towards the macabre. After forced to witness his family’s murder, Turnbull curses Hex with brand to the face (a not uncommon form of punishment in America through the 1800s). Hex’s first move toward vengeance-driven madness is his removal of the brand, shown in a flashback where he takes a hatchet to his own face, right as the camera cuts (akin to the self-decapitation in the opening of the new Nightmare on Elm Street remake). Thereon, Hex wears a melted-looking right cheek a la Freddy Krueger, to the extent of a hole appearing through his skin. This fissure gives a porthole to his teeth, thus making the familiar Brolin countenance looking skeletal. His ability to gun down a whole pack, like a light-speed Man with No Name, certifies his look.
Hellish looking or no, Hex has the devotion of saloon gal Lilah, a tightly corseted, mannequin-ish Megan Fox. An asskicker herself – she can ward off johns when not willing to serve them – Lilah may see kinship in Hex’s violent reactions to his victimization. Hence, the dark avenger has a girl to win, thus fueling his journey to redemption, should it be possible. Hex’s hunt for Turnbull, whom he first though to be dead, becomes official when the American president recruits the infamous Hex to take him down. Save the film’s loopy approach, it seems as if the scenarists know and respect their westerns, and are worthy to add to the milieu.
Until we take it further. It turns out that Turnbull is a post Civil War-era bioterrorist. (It’s 1876 – are the men riding the train Union troops or U.S. Cavalry? Then again, I doubt this film’s concerned with historical accuracy.) He somehow has fashioned some king of hokey doomsday device – golden cannonballs – as if he plays poker with the mad scientist from Wild Wild West. The move connects the plot’s dots, by threatening the entire nation (!) and giving the president reason to recruit Hex. But can we endanger the entire frontier and the eastern established states all at once? At this point, there’s little sense in having the narrative take place in the Old West. A major draw of westerns is their sense of solitude, how avengers had to triumph in the middle of nowhere. Globalizing the genre means discarding it. Deserts and lone wanderer narratives will always remain – settle the story in another time and give it some credibility.
The filmmakers try to squeeze action from their trampling of a genre. An early pit-fighting scene, which includes what must be a supernatural snake man, suggests that more gratuitous moves will follow. Hex was so close to dead that he can temporarily raise bodies for info. It’s the stuff of Bryan Fuller’s whimsical, short-lived ABC series Pushing Daisies, though here randomly deployed when the story needs it. Hex, already near dead meat throughout, is brought back from the dead by more hazy means. A supernatural-terrorism-western film makes a lot of noise, but sounds off by the opening minutes. Thank god there’s only 81 of them.
Malkovich as a post-Civil War bioterrorist.