Judge Gordon Sullivan thinks the middle of this picture needed a quicker picker-upper.
The First Polish Western
The Proposition set the bar pretty high for 21st century Westerns. It had a multilayered story, a fascinating visual sense that made excellent use of generally underrepresented landscapes, and some wonderful acting that supported interesting characters. Dead Man's Bounty (originally titled Summer Love) isn't in the same league as The Proposition, but it does offer an introduction to a new visual voice and some well-wrought takes on classic Western characters.
Facts of the Case
The Stranger (Karel Roden, Hellboy) brings the body of The Wanted Man (Val Kilmer, Heat) into a tiny frontier town hoping to take the five hundred dollar bounty. Within hours he's lost it all gambling and he's chased out of town, the law in hot pursuit. He must survive the grim landscape and avoid The Sheriff (Boguslaw Linda, Quo Vadis?) if he hopes to collect his bounty.
I feel like the Western is the plague victim who got better in Monty Python and the Holy Grail. The genre just keeps crying "I'm not dead yet." Not only has the Western refused to die, it has (ironically, given its supposedly conservative outlook) been a place of experimentation. From Dead Man's B&W minimalism to The Quick and the Dead's frenetic ode to the West, the genre has provided a rich palette for a number of visually impressive artists to draw from. One such film is the Polish Dead Man's Bounty from first-time director/writer Piotr Uklanski.
Before I discuss the film's merits any further, I feel I should mention Val Kilmer's participation in Dead Man's Bounty: he plays the corpse of The Wanted Man. No, there are no flashbacks, and yes, he's dead when we first see him. Kilmer's entire job in the film is to literally play dead. While it might seem like a waste of a great actor, his face (generally framed in close-up) adds a disquieting touch to the character, such as it is. Of course it's an odd choice, but that's the kind of thing that distinguishes this film from other obscure Westerns.
With that said, Dead Man's Bounty is undeniably the product of a gifted visual filmmaker. Uklanski captures the Polish countryside, making it both beautiful and deadly (an apparent requisite for the genre). He consistently frames and moves the camera in interesting ways, choosing angles that reveal the characters instead of just presenting them. There are also a number of amusing moments where Uklanski plays with the camera, including giving us several scenes from the corpse's point of view. Also, the film contains a sex scene that includes the characters (naked) using their bodies to spell out the word sex. This scene alone might make the worth watching, as it is hilarious, visually interesting, and still seems to comment on the characters.
Although I have no qualms about the way Dead Man's Bounty was shot, the narrative doesn't live up to the visual work. The film starts with a bang: the appearance of The Stranger with his bounty and the introduction of the inhabitants of the little town are accomplished quickly, maintaining interest. However, the narrative flow drops precipitously when the chase begins. The camerawork can't cover the fact that we've seen this story before. Consequently, the middle of film sags as we delve into the lives of The Sheriff and his crew. There are some surprisingly deep emotional moments during this part of the film, especially from The Woman (played bravely by Katarzyna Figura, a veteran of Polish productions). But even these sometimes shocking emotional moments can't carry the middle of the film. When Dead Man's Bounty kicks into gear for the conclusion, it regains much of its narrative drive, giving the final moments plenty of impact. However, I can't help but feel that it didn't all come together. It wasn't that the narrative was bad; I just think it could have been more.
Even if the film doesn't quite hang together, the actors never give less than their all. I don't think I've seen such a consistently acted genre picture in a while. I'm sure part of the reason is that these are (for the most part) veteran Polish actors, so while this may be a niche release over here, these guys (and gal) have chops to spare. I also found it interesting that they acted in English. It gives their characters an otherworldly air, which helps establish the atmosphere that Uklanski so effectively depicts with his camera. Also adding to the strangely timeless feeling of the film is the use of a number of retro-cowboy tunes at intense moments in the film. The one that sticks out is "Summer Love," from which the original title was taken. I'm not entirely sure of their function in the film, but they are catchy and provide some food for thought.
Lionsgate brings us Dead Man's Bounty in a pretty, but also pretty bare, DVD. The video doesn't look great, but I suspect that most of that is intentional: the film is supposed to look washed out and dirty. However, the print and transfer are free from obvious defects, making the film's superb visuals easier to appreciate. The audio is free of defects, but the mix was a little off, putting the dialogue much lower than in some scenes of carnage, causing me to reach for my remote a number of times. I also couldn't find the promised English closed captions either, although there are Spanish subtitles.
I would have loved to hear from the director (or even Val Kilmer) in a special feature, but all we get is a theatrical trailer (which makes the film look more action-packed than it is) and some photographic stills. Because so many things about this film are different (its location, genre, visual sense, etc), some context would have been appreciated. Certainly I hope the director's future films get more supplements.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
There's violence, there's blood, there's nudity. Nothing shocking by typical genre standards, but if you're not into that, give Dead Man's Bounty a wide berth.
As with many post-Leone westerns, the plot isn't the draw for this film. Instead, it's a rough canvas over which director paints a portrait with light and color. This is, of course, both the film's greatest strength and its greatest weakness. I found the visual inventiveness interesting, but not enough to carry the picture past the narrative slow spots. However, any fan of Westerns since The Wild Bunch should probably see this picture. Everyone else is urged to give this director's future work a look.
Dead Man's Bounty is found not guilty.
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