E1 Entertainment // 2011 // 427 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Gordon Sullivan // May 31st, 2012
Blood will be spilled. Lives will be lost. Men will be ruined.
Perhaps only Vietnam -- with its divisive protests and devastating loss -- can hope to provide modern citizens with a corollary to the Civil War. That war was so bloody that it almost literally ripped the country apart and its effects could be felt for decades to come (if not up until today). It's no wonder then that people moved West in ever greater numbers following the conflict. If nothing else, being that far West meant they were less likely to have to face people they'd been shooting at or who had shot at them (or their loved ones). Of course, the myth of the West is that happy people looking for a new life settled the greater part of America, when the likely truth is that many (if not most) of the people who went West were misfits and drifters, some of them broken by the trials of the recent war. Hell on Wheels attempts to show that side of westward expansion. While not the best Western show in recent memory, it's a solid drama for those who don't mind a bit of violence.
Cullen Bohannan (Anson Mount, Urban Legend: Final Cut) was a Confederate soldier; his family was murdered by a rogue group of Union soldiers as the war was winding down. Now he's moved out West and is looking for revenge. To make ends meet he hires out his services to Thomas Durant (Colm Meaney, The Damned United), the man in charge of bringing the Union Pacific railroad across the country. All ten episodes of the show's first season are spread across three Blu-ray discs.
Do not come looking to Hell on Wheels for anything new in the Western genre. It is unashamedly a combination of Deadwood and The Outlaw Josey Wales. From The Outlaw Josey Wales, the show takes the story of a Confederate soldier whose family has been murdered who then goes West -- though in Josey's case, it's more to get away from people than the seek revenge. The show does not take the lighthearted, sometimes comic approach of Josey Wales. No, from Deadwood, the show takes its darker spin on the Western tradition. We see more realistic characters taking on a variety of challenges, and the show isn't afraid to tackle adult subjects like violence and sexuality.
However, just because Hell on Wheels doesn't really bring anything new to the table doesn't mean it isn't worthwhile. Arguments could be made that The Sopranos was just a well-done remix of gangster elements. Revenge is still an excellent motivation for a character, and the series does a fine job doling out the information Bohannan needs to get his revenge. On the one hand, things are drawn out enough for maximum suspense, but on the other, we're not waiting four episodes in between progress on his search.
The show also does a fine job handling the usual Western trappings. We've got the solider bent on revenge, a woman who needs protecting, an amoral railroad man, and a freed slave as main characters. They interact in beautifully shot locations (with Canada standing in for America). Although the terrain is unforgiving and the railroad track difficult to lay, the show isn't afraid to show something positive. Fans of Deadwood will also likely appreciate the way the show weaves its fictional Western story into the real history of the Union Pacific railroad. Thomas Durant was a real person and single-mindedly brought the Transatlantic Railroad together (and he also lied, cheated, and stole to make it reality).
The center of Hell on Wheels, though, is its cast. Anson Mount perfectly embodies the difficulties of a man bent on revenge. He's so broken he can't make ties to people, but he needs ties to get his revenge. Colm Meaney, on the other hand, simply chews through his scenes (in the best sense possible) with the kind of craft he's been honing for years. Rappers-turned-actors rarely get much credit, but Common shows here that he can grow when he's given a substantial part. Similarly, Dominique McElligott is a relative newcomer, but her performance here shows she could go far. Finally, the smaller roles are filled out by a raft of excellent thespians.
Hell on Wheels really kicks into high gear on this Blu-ray set. The 1.78:1/1080p high definition transfers move between excellent and stunning. Detail -- especially of the vast Western landscapes -- is especially impressive. Color is often desaturated for creative purpose, but otherwise, the colors on these transfers are great. Black levels are consistent and deep, and I didn't detect any serious compression artifact. The DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio track is similarly impressive. We get clean and clear dialogue in the front, with excellent use of the surrounds to establish atmosphere and plenty of low-end thump.
Extras consist largely of featurettes that total almost two hours. Some of them focus on individual episodes and characters, while other look at how particular effects were achieved. Together, they give viewers a pretty solid understanding of how the show came to be. There is also almost 25 minutes of behind-the-scenes footage as well as the film's trailer.
There's a reason that John Wayne's character doesn't go inside the home at the end of The Searchers -- the men whose bloody violence shaped the West didn't often get to enjoy the fruits of their labor. That's the real question behind Hell on Wheels: Will Bohannan get his man (as viewers will no doubt demand) and what will happen once he does? I have a small fear that viewers might invest a lot of time in Hell on Wheels, only to be disappointed by what happens (or doesn't happen) to Bohannan once he's had his revenge.
Hell on Wheels is a solid Western drama from the same folks who regularly bring you shows like Breaking Bad. It's dark, adult, and unafraid to be violent. It's worth a rental to fans of other AMC shows, as well as Western fans, and the excellent presentation and copious extras means this disc is a must-buy for those already fans of the show.
Review content copyright © 2012 Gordon Sullivan; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2013 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: E1 Entertainment
* 1.78:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (English)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 427 Minutes
Release Year: 2011
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Official Site