Thursday, November 17, 2022

The Last Manhunt: The Legend of Willie Boy

Maybe Willie Boy was here longer than we were led to believe. He died at the end of the Robert Redford revisionist western, but his legend still haunts the Mojave Desert around Ruby Mountain. He holds the distinction of being the final fugitive hunted down by an Old West posse. Yet, like Redford’s Deputy Cooper, Sheriff Wilson has little enthusiasm for capturing Boy in Christian Camargo’s The Last Manhunt, which opens tomorrow in New York.

There were only fifth-cousins (in 1909), but William Johnson was deadest against his daughter Carlotta’s relationship with Boy. They defied his prohibition, so a confrontation led to a scuffle and Johnson’s fatal gunshot. Wilson wanted to just ignore the whole thing and punt it to the tribal authorities, but the crime was committed in his jurisdiction. Inconveniently, Pres. Taft had an official visit planned, so Wilson has to mount a posse to make a show of maintaining the peace. However, the Chemehuevi scouts he recruits are friends of Johnson, who are out for revenge.

Of course, as vengeance-seekers, they should probably dig two graves and all that, which certainly turns out to be the case. Boy knows the desert better than anyone, so things get pretty ugly for the posse. Unfortunately, it is difficult for Wilson to defuse the situation, because a sensationalistic reporter keeps pouring fuel on the fire.

The true story of Willie Boy is still somewhat controversial.
Tell Them Willie Boy is Here was based on Harry Lawton’s “New Journalism novel,” whose veracity has been somewhat questioned in recent years, but both films are largely sympathetic to Boy. The truth is probably somewhere in between the two.

Last Manhunt is an unusually draggy film. Camargo, who portrays Wilson with understated grit and complicity, has severe pacing issues as a director. This might be the slowest “Western” since Power of the Dog. Executive producer Jason Momoa’s big floating head on the poster is also a bit of a bait-and-switch. He only turns up occasionally as Wilson’s largely-assimilated Native crony, Big Jim. At least the “Big” part is true.

Camargo has a good understanding of these rugged, hardscrabble characters, like Johnson, nicely played by Zahn McClarnon (from
Dark Winds). The film’s skepticism of journalistic ethics is also justified, now more than ever. Yet, storytelling is also a big part of filmmaking and this advances at a glacial speed.

Writer Thomas Pa’a Sibbett a highly credible alternative to the pseudo-official story of Willie Boy, but Camargo still romanticizes him. It is a well-intentioned revisionist Western, but that desert is just as brutal to viewers as it is for the posse. Not recommended,
The Last Manhunt opens tomorrow (11/18) at the Cinema Village.