Revenge movies sound fairly simple to pull off, but they can be a difficult subgenre of the action/drama brand to get right, because, as strange as it sounds, the stakes at hand aren't simply for the characters involved; they're also for the audience. You see: If the audience doesn't care why someone is seeking vengeance, or doesn't necessarily associate (in this case) the loss of a loved one as something truly noteworthy, then the whole thing basically falls flat. Father, brother, husband, wife, mother, daughter it doesn't matter; if there isn't a compelling individual lost to the protagonist, or the protagonist him/herself isn't terribly interesting – i.e., is merely the delivery system for said reprisal – then the subsequent act of vengeance typically becomes rote.
Now that's not to say that empathy isn't a powerful tool for a filmmaker to use. All he or she need do is imply the on-screen harm that befalls a character is somehow relatable to the audiences' fear of losing those close to them, and a connection is ostensibly established. But sometimes, as is the case with the revenge Western 'Sweetwater,' the impetus for revenge at first relies too heavily on the supposed empathy of the audience, without building the event in question around characters that anyone feels a connection to; so when there finally are grounds for some scores to be settled, the audience is well past the point of caring.
From siblings Logan and Noah Miller (they share screenwriting credit, while Logan is the sole director), 'Sweetwater' tells the tale of a former prostitute played by January Jones, who is sadly not named Sweet Water. Instead, Jones plays, Sarah Ramirez, the wife of Miguel Ramirez, played by Eduardo Noriega ('The Last Stand'), a would-be farmer in late-19th century New Mexico. Their small farm is an out-of-the way place that happens to neighbor the land held by the self-proclaimed Prophet Josiah (Jason Isaacs), a sheep herder and religious man whose palatial estate is adorned with two long rows of enormous white crosses leading up to its entrance. There, Josiah resides with his two wives and loyal followers, and kills those who trespass on his land – which we see in an early scene involving Logan and Noah Miller as the hapless brothers Levi and Jacob.
As with most bad men in Westerns, Josiah also has the nearby town's sheriff in his pocket, as well as the mostly corrupt men who own businesses there. Following an altercation between Miguel and Josiah in which the prophet's sheep are accused of eating the farmer's miniscule crops, Miguel winds up dead, and Sarah quickly becomes an object of Josiah's heretofore unrestrained lust and sense of entitlement. Normally, the death of Sarah's husband would be enough to set off the chain of events that comprise your typical revenge tale, and with the addition of her assault at the hands of Josiah, violent reprisal feels not just justified, but completely necessary. The story, however, becomes complicated with the arrival of Ed Harris' eccentric and unpredictable lawman, Sheriff Jackson. Jackson, as luck would have it, is investigating the disappearance of Levi and Jacob, and has set his sights on none other than Josiah.
Normally, the arrival of someone like Jackson would be something that is expected, as he fits into the tropes commonly associated with Westerns and the specific mythology surrounding that genre's hero figures. But at its heart, 'Sweetwater' is trying to be a transgressive revenge Western, by placing the need for revenge in the hands of its female protagonist. By adding Sheriff Jackson to the fold, the Millers have essentially stripped their lead character of much of her power with regard to the narrative; the fact that Harris' performance is turned up all the way to eleven, while Jones is much more subdued doesn't help matter much either.
But the problems with 'Sweetwater' come into play long before any of the shooting begins. For starters, the script never offers much in the way of clever, meaningful characterization or information on anyone aside from Jackson and Josiah. The audience is intended to feel something when Miguel is unjustly murdered and when Sarah is subsequently attacked. To say the movie is unsuccessful in making the audience feel something would be false; but its only effective in the way the average episode of 'Law & Order: SVU' is: The act of murder and sexual assault is so heinous only an unstable person wouldn't be put off by the thought of it. Essentially, we feel for Sarah in a visceral sense, but there's nothing about her or her husband as characters that makes us capable of having actual feelings about them as people; they're simply parts of a story driving toward an expected conclusion.
Even early on, in the brief time we get to see them together, their marriage just doesn't hold any real sense of value beyond the idea that this is a married couple. Sarah and Miguel exist completely without context; they have no children – at least at the moment; we don't really know how long they've been together; and, save for one incredibly disconnected scene with Amy Madigan as her mother, we don't really have any idea of who Sarah is as a person. Why was she a prostitute in the first place? Why did she stop being a prostitute? How does she feel about either of those things? These are important questions and the movie simply doesn't offer any information on them. The same goes for Sarah's husband. Sure, Miguel seems to be in love with Sarah because, well, who wouldn't be?—she's very pretty and since this is in the late-19th century, he hasn't had the chance to see 'Mad Men' yet. But that's all that we have to go on; the Sarah and Miguel relationship is primarily as visceral as her victimization, but in order for the latter to have any true weight, the former has to be developed. And in 'Sweetwater,' it is practically embryonic.
Even more troublesome is the way the Miller brothers attempt to insert subtext into the film with regard to the construct of religion. They begin suggesting religious hypocrisy, but then mix that with the idea of religious persecution, religious freedom, and finally top it all off with a hint of racial prejudice. All of this is well and good, but in addition to it lacking any sense of why it was thrown in there, none of it really has any bearing on January Jones' character, as she doesn't fit into any of these categories. In fact, you'd be hard-pressed to find a single scene hinting at the abovementioned elements that has anything to do with the film's ostensible protagonist.
While 'Sweetwater' lacks quality characters and a script that would have made them feel more present and meaningful, Logan Miller does, however, have a nice eye and manages to create a film that at times looks quite nice and is occasionally capable of displaying some engaging craftsmanship, even though their script and story around it falls woefully short.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'Sweetwater' comes from Arc Entertainment as a single 25GB Blu-ray disc in the standard keepcase. There are a handful of previews ahead of the top menu that can be skipped. Otherwise, the disc is fairly standard with a DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix and a handful of generic special features.
Presented in with a 1080p AVC/MPEG-4 encoded transfer, the image on 'Sweetwater' far exceeds the film's content. The image is bright, crisp, and does a fantastic job of highlighting not only the fabulous scenery in the film, but also the intricacies of the costumes and some of the sets. Despite taking place in and around the undeveloped plains of New Mexico, there are plenty of things to keep the eye busy, and the filmmakers have done a great job bringing these elements out.
The image itself is generally full of fine detail on the usual suspects like skin and facial features, as well as textural elements, which actually come into play here more often than you might expect, as the various worn faces of the hard-living men (like Harris), and their often dusty, dirty wardrobes tend to make the movie feel a little more authentic. There's also a high contrast level that produces some robust, inky blacks, which are augmented by excellent shadow delineation. Colors also play a major role in the overall look of the film, as is denoted by the bright purple dress donned by Jones' character later on. Most of the color palate is earthy browns, blacks, and some greens, so when brighter more audacious colors come into play, they really stand out and look grand.
Aside from a few issues where the image is a tad soft, this is a great image that comes close to being amazing.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 offers a good listening experience that manages to spread a great deal of the sound around, but doesn't seem to want to do much with it. That's not to say the sound here is bad, because it's not; the sound just feels a touch anemic and when called to be big and powerful, it can sometimes come off a little weak.
Now, for the most part, the sound is quite good. The dialogue is clear and easily heard; it generally emanates from the center channel, but with some good extension and imaging, there is more than one occasion where it will come from any of the other channels at its disposal. Most of the mix is loaded toward the front. Gunshots tend to ring out and either sound great, or a little dull. Most can be heard to echo from the rear channels, which does create a nice immersive feeling, but nothing really compares to a scene involving several guns and a heard of frightened, fenced-in sheep.
Overall, this is a good sounding disc. The problems with the lackluster segments actually wind up being overwhelmed by the quality of the mix elsewhere, so even though there are a few disappointments, it is a nice sounding mix in general.
'Sweetwater' is the kind of movie that wants to be a lot smarter than it is, and deep down, it feels like there was a much smarter, more coherent movie that wound up being left in an editing suite somewhere. There are some definite undertones to the text, and the Millers are clearly trying to be symbolic, but to what end? Ultimately, without being able to answer that with any certainty, the whole thing winds up ringing completely hollow. Add that to the fact that the script and the characters never build anything remotely resembling tension, and you have a movie that relies too heavily on some admittedly nice-looking shots and familiar stars to get by. With a great image and good sound, 'Sweetwater' will likely be disappointing to some, but it might be worth a rental if you're curious.