The world premiere of The Journeyman, the feature debut of Austin native James Crowley, at SXSW (the South by Southwest Film Festival) on Saturday March 10th 2001, was, as we might say in Scotland, mental. The film is a Western, shot in Western Texas, by Texans, and features what seemed to be most of the audience in the beautifully preserved Paramount Theater (or their families, or their friends). And frankly, it was kinda tricky to treat the film as a film, and not as an element in the spectacle of a premiere. Okay, so I don’t get to a lot of premieres, but I was there with someone who does, who informed me that it’s not entirely normal for every new character to appear on the screen to be greeted by enormous whoops and cheers. This was particularly bizarre when the character was clearly bad. But it was pretty cool anyway.
The Journeyman‘s press materials say it is influenced by the Sergio Leone spaghetti Westerns, but in some ways, this is underselling the film. It is a tale (like many Leone movies) of family, betrayal, violence, revenge and, er, drug abuse. And it goes like this ...
One young boy is watching his brother repeatedly fail to mount a horse in a corral, haranguing him while he hits the dirt over and over. Meanwhile, Dad (Willie Nelson) is greeting a bunch of surly gun-toting types who’ve just arrived and are clearly not nice blokes. Exit Dad, courtesy of a moderately deranged cowboy (Arie Verveen). The older son is kidnapped by the gang and the younger boy (hiding under the shit-house out back) is eventually rescued by a silent, black-clad rider, who is kind of a Priest-With-No-Name.
Cut to “13 years later.” In a grim nowheresville town, the traveling prostitutes (“Gore’s Whores”) are servicing the local miners when a robbery commences at the paymaster’s office. In the ensuing shoot-out, one thief (L.J. Burleston) is shot dead, a second (Walter P Higgs, III) is wounded but escapes. The third robber, the thin and emotionless Morphinist (Brad Hunt), makes off with the money and a bag full of morphine, leaving a trail of bodies in his wake. Along comes a silent rider called the Journeyman (Daniel Lapaine). True to his name, he’s looking for any kind of work, and is persuaded by the mine owner (a particularly brilliant Barry Corbin) to join the posse pursuing the Morphinist. During this pursuit, the body count mounts quite spectacularly and in a way that is unlikely to be embraced by a major studio: the dead are mostly unarmed innocents, including men, women and children from diverse ethnic backgrounds. That the brothers (you worked that out already, right?) eventually meet is never in doubt. But the ending is as ambiguous as much of the rest of the film, and maybe even a little frustrating. You’ll just have to make up your own mind, I guess.
It’s a low budget film, with some awkward pacing and occasionally wobbly supporting performances. On the other hand, the soundtrack captures much of the epic grandeur of Ennio Morricone’s greatest work, and the burnt out vistas of West Texas are often gorgeous. It looks great and sounds great and, if you’re prepared to overlook the plot holes, it’s a compelling story of brotherly love and loyalty, good and evil. The junkie killer is truly repellent and Hunt plays him with more than a little Gary Oldman-esque psychosis (see, for instance, Oldman’s pre-murder-spree pill-popping in Leon), though LaPaine’s Journeyman is much blander, and it’s more difficult to see what makes him tick. Lastly, there are no substantive female characters at all. The only one who does anything (Assumpta Serna) is still playing a perfunctory role, and the story would play out in exactly the same way without her.
So, is it any good? Well, yes. The film was finished only about three days before the screening at SXSW, and it’s possible there’ll be some fine-tuning before distribution. With a final polish, The Journeyman might be a feature debut as important as Robert Rodriguez’s El Mariachi. Kick ass.