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As the opening scenes of Gunfight at La Mesa unfolded, I asked myself why very few independent filmmakers seem to choose the Western genre for their first cinematic foray. After all, if it was good enough for John Ford to cut his teeth on, it should be good enough for any aspiring filmmaker. Plus, if you live west of the Mississippi, decent Western-style landscapes are never more than a few hours away. Of course the Western has been "dead" at least since Unforgiven in 1993, so its apparent unpopularity might deter potential filmmakers. However, in a crowded field of independent films, the Western trappings set Gunfight at La Mesa apart, even if those trappings also prove to be its downfall.
When Tate Noble (co-screenwriter Walker Haynes) was a boy in La Mesa, his parents were murdered. The film takes place over a decade later, when Tate has returned to find the person responsible for his parents' death to make them pay.
Gunfight at La Mesa has the classic revenge narrative of many a good Western. The whiskey soaked (and, of course, handsome) young man getting revenge for his family's murder is perfect, and the fact that he's Native American certainly doesn't hurt any. There's the good conflicted sidekick, a friend when Tate was younger who grew up into the town sheriff, and a bad guy who oozes old-school menace at the hero. Screenwriters Walker Haynes and Chris Fickley obviously love and respect the genre they're working in.
In fact, that love and respect might be what turns Gunfight at La Mesa sour in the end. We have definitely seen everything here before. Since the low-budget, independent nature of this project doesn't allow for the bucks to do crazy camera moves of a Sam Raimi nor the beautiful visuals of a John Ford, the film has to rely on its narrative. That, sadly, isn't quite up to snuff. The period setting adds some spice to the typical revenge scheme (itself a response to a typical financial motive), but again the budget doesn't allow for the viewer to get fully wrapped up in the world of the story.
Budget might also be a problem for some viewers. This is an independent feature, and as such features actors of wildly varying talents. Furthermore, the costumes, locations, and speech are almost always either anachronistic or inconsistent. If that kind of stuff takes you out of a film, then Gunfight at La Mesa is one to avoid.
Whatever problems the film has, it's been brought to DVD with style to spare. The 1.78:1 anamorphic transfer looks solid. The film itself has been digitally treated to look old-timey, so it's a little difficult to gauge how well the transfer works. However, from what I can gather the shot-on-video feature looks appropriate here. Black levels are consistent (if a lacking a bit of depth), and the film's color seem seems to have been reproduced faithfully. The film's 5.1 surround track keeps dialogue easily audible and in the front speaker, saving the rear speakers for atmospherics in some scenes.
Extras start with two commentary tracks. The first features director/co-writer Chris Fickley and actor/co-writer Walker Haynes, while the second includes Haynes with sound editor Warrick Marais. Both tracks are filled with the filmmakers' enthusiasm for the Gunfight at La Mesa, as well as relevant tidbits about the film's production. However, they probably could have been edited together to produce a track with fewer silences and less overlap than the two tracks have together. In addition to the commentaries, we get a making-of featurette and some outtakes.
Despite the problems with the film, Gunfight at La Mesa made me feel like I desperately wanted it to work, like I should be rooting for the filmmakers to overcome their budgetary constraints to really deliver on the promise of the ideas behind the film. The film may never live up to the potential it demonstrates, but some viewers may enjoy it for that charge of possibility alone.
Gunfight at La Mesa will appeal to diehard Western fans looking for their fix, with its mix of traditional genre elements. It might also appeal to other independent filmmakers who want to get out of the crime/horror rut that plagues many first-time directors. Although casual fans might not find much to enjoy in Gunfight, the film shows enough potential to make the filmmakers worth watching in the future.
Despite an overreliance on Western conventions, Gunfight at La Mesa is not guilty.
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