December 1, 1995 in Seven

‘Wild Bill’ Is A Telling Portrait Of Torment In Unglamorous Old West

Michael H. Price Fort Worth Star-Telegram
 

The viewer in search of lighthearted escapism may find Walter Hill’s “Wild Bill” a bit grim and philosophical. Those who like their Old West with depth and substance, however, will dig right in and enjoy.

For of course, the American frontier was never about happy cowboys or nonstop rip-snorting adventure. The pioneer is “the guy with the arrows in his back,” as the old saying goes. And Hill has become one of the western genre’s more respected artists with a number of films - including “The Long Riders” (1980) and “Geronimo: An American Legend” (1993) - that find fascination in the Old West without glamorizing it.

“Wild Bill” is about as far from a conventional shoot-‘em-up as the Hollywood western gets. The film delivers instead a trenchant, psychologically textured portrait of a man whose very torments made him a legend. It is neither history nor biography, but a richly observed fiction with the ring of truth.

Jeff Bridges plays Wild Bill Hickock as a man on a collision course with doom. His funeral accounts for the opening scene, from which an extended flashback reveals how the famous gunman came to this sorry end.

Hill has worked Thomas Babe’s Oedipal stage play of 1978, “Fathers and Sons,” into the mix here, along with Pete Dexter’s novel, “Deadwood.” The central vision is a screenplay that Hill began writing some 15 years ago, in which he details a recurring threat to Hickock’s life from the son of a prairie widow (Diane Lane) whom Hickock had loved and lost.

Bridges keeps company with Ellen Barkin, as a lonesome, spunky Calamity Jane; John Hurt, as a coolly detached, drunken Englishman who fancies himself a frontiersman; James Gammon, as a burly sidekick; and David Arquette, as the annoying youngster Jack McCall, who will either claim Wild Bill as a fatherfigure or see him dead. Fort Worth singer-songwriter-actor James Michael Taylor shows up among the supporting ranks.

The tale sprawls over a decade near the end of the 19th century, as Hickock ranges the continent from Kansas to New York to Dakota Territory, killing a score of men not quite as ornery as himself - but living on in the torment of knowing that the mythology of the West has already made a hero of him. Not even the oblivion of dope can distract him: Visits to a local opium den only deepen Hickock’s misery - and also allow for some nightmarish surrealism on the part of director Hill and camera chief Lloyd Ahern.

Bridges conveys a soul at once robust and shriveled, struggling to understand its own shortcomings. Hurt makes a curiously sympathetic scoundrel, and Barkin reaches past the yahoo stereotype to portray a Calamity Jane of profound sadness.

Hill’s climactic scene - a tense, carefully wrought mixture of words and ominous gestures - generates suspense where by rights none should exist: If the film has already explained that Wild Bill gets killed, then why should the audience hope against hope for a reprieve? And if Hickock is such a jerk, then why hope at all?

Such responses are simply the upshot of compelling filmmaking and incisive acting.

MEMO: These sidebars appeared with the story:

“WILD BILL”

Location: East Sprague and Newport cinemas

Credits: Written/directed by Walter Hill; starring Jeff Bridges, Ellen Barkin and John Hurt

Running time: 1:38

Rating: R

OTHER VIEWS

Here’s what other critics says about “Wild Bill:”

Duane Byrge/The Hollywood Reporter: Western fans and film buffs will ensure some early select-site appeal, but the film’s repetitive cadence of Wild Bill’s grubby, gun-happy life will not hit the mark with mainstream audiences. … As Hickok, (Jeff) Bridges, once again, gives a terrific, warts-and-all portrayal, never undercoating the gunslinger with any cheap, heart-tugging theatrics.

Jay Boyar/Orlando Sentinel: This tough and challenging production is one of the best films about the Old West to come along in years. You might say that Wild Bill is the movie that Kevin Costner’s disastrous “Wyatt Earp” (1994) fervently wanted to be: a western with an epic dimension.

Chris Hewitt/St. Paul Pioneer Press: You wake from a horrible dream, only to learn you’re not really awake - you only dreamed it. Then you wake up - but, no, you only dreamed it again. Then, you go back to dreaming and suddenly you’re in the middle of a flashback dream and, within that flashback, you flash back again. You can imagine how annoying that would be.

Or you can pay $6.75 and see it all within the first 10 minutes of the confusing, repetitive “Wild Bill.”

These sidebars appeared with the story: “WILD BILL” Location: East Sprague and Newport cinemas Credits: Written/directed by Walter Hill; starring Jeff Bridges, Ellen Barkin and John Hurt Running time: 1:38 Rating: R

OTHER VIEWS Here’s what other critics says about “Wild Bill:” Duane Byrge/The Hollywood Reporter: Western fans and film buffs will ensure some early select-site appeal, but the film’s repetitive cadence of Wild Bill’s grubby, gun-happy life will not hit the mark with mainstream audiences. … As Hickok, (Jeff) Bridges, once again, gives a terrific, warts-and-all portrayal, never undercoating the gunslinger with any cheap, heart-tugging theatrics. Jay Boyar/Orlando Sentinel: This tough and challenging production is one of the best films about the Old West to come along in years. You might say that Wild Bill is the movie that Kevin Costner’s disastrous “Wyatt Earp” (1994) fervently wanted to be: a western with an epic dimension. Chris Hewitt/St. Paul Pioneer Press: You wake from a horrible dream, only to learn you’re not really awake - you only dreamed it. Then you wake up - but, no, you only dreamed it again. Then, you go back to dreaming and suddenly you’re in the middle of a flashback dream and, within that flashback, you flash back again. You can imagine how annoying that would be. Or you can pay $6.75 and see it all within the first 10 minutes of the confusing, repetitive “Wild Bill.”


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