The western is, in many ways, the American creation myth. Its iconic images, heroes, and stories tell the history of how America went from a wilderness frontier to an industrialized power. Indeed, the western is so specifically American, that whenever a filmmaker from another country attempts the genre, it’s shamefully labelled a “spaghetti western”, a “saurkraut western”, or even a “sushi western”.
Well, Dead Man’s Bounty is supposedly the very first Polish western (somehow I doubt this). You can pick whatever Polish entree’ you wish to label the film (“pierogi western”, perhaps?) but it would give you no clue whatsoever as to its oddball content. It does not resemble the classical work of John Ford or even the post-modernist films of Sergio Leone. Instead, its closest progenitors are Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s Brecht-influenced and just plain weird 1971 film, Whity and Alex Cox’s Americanized Spaghetti western, Straight to Hell.
Like Fassbinder, first time writer-director Piotr Uklanski expresses a strong theatricalism in his staging and storytelling, which creates a dream-like effect onscreen. Like Cox, his work gives the impression of a mischievious filmmaker flipping off the genre and the very notion of movies themselves. As you will see, the casting of Val Kilmer in the film expresses both styles at once.
Originally titled Summer Love, Dead Man’s Bounty is about a mysterious Stranger (Karel Roden) who arrives in a very threadbare town looking to be paid for his bounty—the dead body of a Wanted Man (Val Kilmer). When he loses the body in a card game, makes love to a local barowner (Katarzyna Figura) and accidently shoots one of the townsfolk when he drops his rifle, the Stranger finds himself on the run from the Sheriff (Boguslaw Linda) and trying to figure out how to collect his money. Mayhem ensues, but not at all of the the kind a western buff might be expecting.
The first thing that must be said about the film is that Kilmer’s familiar face is the biggest thing on the DVD box. Well, Kilmer is definitely in the film—but he’s dead from the first frame to last. I don’t mean that he gives a lifeless performance, I actually mean that he plays a corpse in every scene in the movie. There are no flashbacks where he hangs out in the saloon like in Tombstone and he doesn’t get better and rise from the dead before the end. So, there’s bound to be many Kilmer fans who will be foaming at the mouth with anger long before the movie is over.
So why would director Uklanski cast such a familiar face to basically play a prop? The answer lies within the question. Uklanski is a well known conceptual artist whose work has been shown at MOMA, the Centre Pompidou, and the Venice Biennale. His work has been described as using stereotypical motifs and strategies from pop culture, art, and cinema to address issues of cultural identity and authenticity.
Which is why Uklanski chose the Western genre with it’s stereotypical motifs and images and why he would cast Kilmer to play a corpse. One of the trademarks of the spaghetti western was the obligatory casting of fallen American stars looking for work in Europe. Uklanski plays with this concept through the obligatory casting of fallen American star Kilmer, whom he casts precisely for his familiar face to lend power to the image of the dead man. For his part, Kilmer must have had a great sense of humor for taking the role.
The movie itself is visually striking but the script is random and less than coherent. This is almost always the flaw of visually gifted filmmakers and Uklanski is no exception. The colors, framings, set designs and faces are memorable, indeed, but the story is completely boring. None of the characters are noteworthy, all of whom are about as deeply drawn as Kilmer’s corpse. This is no fault of the actors who all give good performances, in English to boot. Karel Roden (so effective in Nacho Cerda’s 2006 horror film The Abandoned) in particular gives a very strong performance as the Stranger.
The main problem with films like Dead Man’s Bounty is that in attempting to create a shock effect of the new within the old, the baby is often tossed out with the bathwater. The core pleasures of genre still have to be respected. When they are not, you get long scenes of uninvolving drama even with powerful and painterly images. In Dead Man’s Bounty, good storytelling is replaced with long stretches of intense boredom, as if watching those images slowly dry.
The DVD is a bare bones effort from Lionsgate with no extras or interviews and this is the kind of film that needs those extras since so much of its coherence comes from artistic context. It seems that Lionsgate threw this out onto the market to capitalize on the release of 3:10 to Yuma and fool people into thinking they were getting an old fashioned western “starring” Val Kilmer. It’s always a good idea to misrepresent your product, right?