It is strange how often former Union soldiers are the villains of revisionist westerns. Who do they think fought the Confederates? (They must have been bad, since their flag is the embodiment of all evil.) Jackson is one such bad cat. They say he was Sherman’s best killer. Given his very particular set of skills, it is probably a bad idea to kidnap his wife. Yet, a band of outlaws go and do it anyway in Lawrence Roeck’s Diablo (trailer here), which opens tomorrow in Los Angeles.
At least those outlaws do not waste time with exposition. As the film starts, they have just abducted Jackson’s wife Alexsandra and lit his barn ablaze. Unfortunately for them, the Union veteran manages to get his horse out safely before collapsing from smoke. With help from his neighborly neighbors, Jackson is able to right himself quickly and light out after the bandits. He will be stalking his prey on decidedly dangerous trail. A psychotic named Ezra is also prowling about, gunning down people for sadistic sport. To survive long enough to catch up with his wife, Jackson will have to kill better than Ezra.
By far, the best scenes in Diablo involve the Native people who give the injured Jackson shelter. Adam Beach and Samuel Marty are terrific as Nakoma and his young son Ishani, which is why the dark, seemingly random direction Roeck and co-screenwriter Carlos take their side plot is so disappointing.
If Scott Eastwood couldn’t ride a horse, it would be a scandal. He has the appropriate scruff for Jackson, but he doesn’t have anything close to his father’s piercing stare. On the other hand, Walton Goggins (from Justified and Sons of Anarchy) has the loquacious killer thing down cold. Danny Glover notches another greybearded western cameo, while Camilla Bella hardly gets any screen time as the Macguffinish Alexsandra.
Diablo starts out as a mildly revisionist western that suddenly becomes massively revisionary in the third act. However, that big twist feels out of place in the genre. It would be spoilery to explain why, but it leaves viewers feeling like they misspent their investment in the characters. It is nice to see filmmakers try to give the big screen western a shot in the arm, but it just doesn’t work here. Interesting for its ambition, but not really recommended, Diablo opens this Friday (1/8) in Los Angeles at the Arena Cinema.