The Quick and the Dead (1995) – Movie Review

On the surface, everything needed for a thrilling Western seems to be there: we have gun-duels, a revenge plot, a cheesy score (replete with whipping sounds,) explosions, bodies getting tossed about, tits, etc. However, despite containing all of these elements the movie is missing one key thing: excitement. Everything in the film that is supposed to be tense or gratifying is completely undermined by how predictable it all seems. The Quick and the Dead (directed by Sam Raimi) is supposed to be a love letter to the genre, but the problem is that anyone who has seen even only a few Westerns will likely be bored by this film. I mean, there’s nothing wrong with being a homage, but it’s as if they just took every trope and cobbled them together with little regard for things like narrative, imagery and character development. A movie can’t just be a collection of references and cliches; it has to be able to stand on its own; it has to have something.

The Quick and the Boring begins with Sharon Stone as a gunslinger who strolls into town after stealing a horse from some bloke. The wide-shots of the plains and the shots of the drunkards and prostitutes already indicates to the audience that this movie has no original ideas. Sharon Stone’s character, especially, is a stoic dressed-up as Clint Eastwood; she isn’t even given a name as she’s mostly referred to as “The Lady.” It’s almost as if they were attempting to create a mythic character out of her a la “The Man With No Name,” but it doesn’t work. This is because 1.) Sharon Stone just doesn’t have the same presence as a Clint Eastwood to totally pull this off and 2.) the writing doesn’t do anything with the potential archetype; we’re just expected to accept the nature of her character despite not being offered anything original or interesting to latch onto.

Anyway, the town, called Redemption (do I need to tell you that this is going to be a theme of the film?), is holding an annual dueling competition. We are soon introduced to a flurry of characters including the town’s tyrant Herod (Gene Hackman), a preacher and Herod’s former henchman Cort (Russel Crowe) and The Kid (Leonardo DiCaprio) who we later find out is Herod’s illegitimate son. The aforementioned competition and characters are all introduced within a single, quickly-paced saloon scene. The problem with this is that it’s information overload to the point that, when Herod finally enters and nearly hangs Cort for refusing to enter the contest (Herod is obsessed with showing that Cort is, deep-down, still a killer,) and The Lady intervenes we sort of don’t give a shit. There is hardly any tension, just the empty spectacle of Cort nearly being hanged within the bar. It’s also obvious that The Lady has something against Herod (though what is revealed, gradually, over time,) but instead of the audience wondering about her possible motivations all we’re thinking is “Oh, I guess there’s a past between them suddenly. Okay. Whatever.” This is because it’s all shoved into the scene so swiftly and with nary any subtlety. We’re just supposed to accept and care about these characters.

After all of the major characters sign-up for the competition we basically know how things pan out. As Herod tries to coerce Cort he isn’t go to fully revert back to his old ways; The Kid is going to get cocky and get killed; The Lady is going to have a number of opportunities to kill Herod, but the audience knows that they are destined to duel at the end, making such scenes where she is seemingly going to kill him seem pointless and drawn-out; etc.

There are no interesting narrative twists, no character or image that compels; basically nothing to offer aside from a rather predictable and rote story. There are also some rather inexcusable cliches, like when Herod makes his entrance the saloon doors open and a breeze moves across The Lady’s hair; we then get an intense close-up of her eyes as Herod enters as flames dance in the background (there is a “Day of the Dead” celebration happening outside with firelight.) Another notable example is at the film’s “low point,” which is so over-the-top that it’s nearly painful. The Lady, after killing a local asshole (she has a thing against killing,) abandons town only to find her father’s grave (we learn that she used to be marshal of the town.) She’s crying, it’s raining, she’s standing near tombstones, and an old fuck hands her her father’s badge. Do I need to tell you that this scene just plain sucks? You can’t even say the scene feels manipulative; it’s not clever enough to be even that. The audience just feels embarrassed. In order to present a character’s or narrative’s “low point” you have to do so less ham-fistedly lest the audience starts tuning-out. The Lady returns to the town and goes down on Cort after they have shared a few scenes together. We already knew that they were going to get together because there always has to be some sort of romance (has to be!); and, since we know this, we also know that it’s inevitable that they are going to have to duel each other. But, of course, when The Lady is shot we know that she isn’t dead. As the film progresses we are just waiting for her to return, making the part where she blows up half the town seem less exciting.

But, ultimately, like a lot of films, the reason this movie fails is because of the characters. They are all one-note, following a single, predictable trajectory. Not much else defines them. Just because a character has a backstory, or has an established arc, doesn’t mean the character is good; it just means the character is basic. We don’t really get “into” the characters. There lacks seemingly little moments that help define the figures on screen as human rather than stereotypes or props serving the narrative. Possibly the best major character is Cort, but even then we don’t get much out of him other than that he’s trying to redeem himself by becoming a preacher, a cliche that could work if something was done with it. We don’t get to explore Cort’s guilt, nor his animosity towards killing. The only real, “small” moment, that works decently is when he wins his first duel he looks down at his gun with surprise, as if the thing that killed his opponent wasn’t himself, but rather some other second nature that he’s been attempting to bury. Instead of capitalizing on such a moment and what it represents we instead get an awful scene in which Herod takes Cort to the gun shop ran by The Kid. As the Kid pulls out fancier, and fancier pistols we get close-ups of Cort’s eyes, filled with temptation. “Hey audience. This is how we want you to think of Cort. Get it?” Again, The Slow and the Dread really lacks subtlety. 

The Lady could have been a good character. After the saloon scene she wakes up in The Kid’s bed, hungover. This is a twist on the audience’s expectations because before we’ve seen The Lady as this complete stoic; now we see how much of this is a facade. But, again, the movie doesn’t really capitalize on this potential character development. What we really needed is an exchange between The Lady and Cort where they implicitly challenge the other’s motivations and character. The Lady could imply that Cort’s becoming a preacher is just a superficial “fix”: an easy and obvious way to deny one’s past sins; at the same time, Cort could question what The Lady will do once she got her revenge. Their reactions to such queries will open the characters up, and, as well, make their relationship more human, allowing the audience to care more deeply. The Lady could also describe how, in her attempts to save her father, ended-up killing him and she could explain that as the reasoning for saving Cort. It might be far-fetched for her character to doll such information out explicitly, but she could at least attempt to, but then slink back into herself. This would show us her vulnerability and her inability to connect with others. It’s stuff like that that allows us to give a shit about these characters as human.

The Kid, on the other hand, needs something more as well. Perhaps, as the film pushes forth, we see that he is just like his father or, perhaps, even worse. This could be shown in how he treats the other characters, or how he acts in private. Instead of him merely being one thing throughout, our expectations would become subverted. When a character seemingly changes direction halfway, but in a way that seems organic to the narrative, the audience is more inclined to want to see what happens next for how the events of the film will unfold becomes an even greater question.

So, in conclusion, I would not recommend The Quick and the Dead. Unlike some people I know, I don’t think it’s amazing. I mean, it’s not terrible, but it’s still a pretty empty experience, like drinking alone or going to your grandmother’s birthday. A film, in order to be good, needs to do more than just go from A to B to C whilst hitting every beat; that shit might impress a Screenwriting 101 course, but a film needs to go beyond fulfilling technique in order to be truly successful. There needs to be inspiration. Something to grasp onto. You may like the film for whatever reason, but otherwise, it is just a barren plane.

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